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Lives of the poets: six stories and a novella.

In the introduction to his only play, Drinks Before Dinner, E.L. Doctorow says he's tired of what he calls "the theatre of pathos." By that, he means plays in which a story is told about this man or that woman to reveal how sad his or her life is, or how triumphant, or how he or she does not realize fulfillment as a human being, or does realize it, or is trapped in his or her own illusions, or is liberated from them, or fails to learn to communicate love, or learns, or is morally defeated by ethnic or economic circumstances, or is not defeated.

If you think that list covers just about everything from Oedipus Rex to Hurlyburly, you're right. Doctorow doesn't care much for any play that takes the emotional life of human beings too seriously. He's pround to say that his characters "have no domestic biographies to offer, no childhoods to remember, no religion, no regional identification." As little human dimension, in short, as possible.

What they do have is ideas. Doctorow loves ideas. He favors plays "in which the holding of ideas or the arguing of ideas is a matter of life and death, and characters take the ideas they hold as seriously as survival." The main idea in Drinks Before Dinner, as postulated by one Edgar (the author's mouthpiece), is that thanks to TV and the Bomb, we've all "dispose[d] of our humanity." "I am no longer distinguishable from anyone else," complains Edgar, "nor is anyone distinguishable from me. . . . We could all be each other." This, Doctorow means us to understand, is why he's not all that excited about writing plays that center on emotional conflicts: we nuclear-age Americans are automatons and cannot be expected to have any emotions, let alone emotional conflicts, worth writing about.

Doctorow's novels sell a similar bill of goods. The pre-World War I Americans in the pellucid, often powerfully written Ragtime, with their plain-wrap names ("Father," "Mother," "Younger Brother," etc.), and the Depression-era Americans in the often confusing and pseudosurrealistic 1980 novel Loon Lake (in which the histories of the major characters are presented as cut and dried Who's Who listings) are as free of human dimension as the contemporary dramatis personae in Drinks Before Dinner. Doctorow doesn't blame the truncation of these lives on TV and the Bomb, of course. On what, then? Partly on Freud, whose ideas, he says, "destroy[ed] sex in America," but even more, predictably enough, on a native son: Henry Ford, whose assembly line turned workmen into "nameless faceless" cogs (Loon Lake) and "interchangeable parts" (Ragtime). The characters in The Book of Daniel are somewhat rounder, but even they are defined almost exclusively in terms of their relationship to the American system; as the book is supposed to be Daniel's doctoral dissertation, its form allows Doctorow to interpolate mini think-pieces on, among other things, Disneyland as the ultimate symbol of depersonalization in modern America.

What about Doctorow's first novel, Welcome to Hard Times? It's a Western, and therefore takes place pre-assembly line, but its characters--the settlers who help Blue, the Mayor of a Dakota Territory town named Hard Times, rebuild it after its destruction by the marauding Man from Bodie--are perhaps the dreariest and most dimensionless of all Doctorow's creations. Why are they like this? Doctorow apparently wants us to feel that it has something to do with their common dream: the American dream of taming a frontier, of working hard and reaping rewards. Near the end of the novel, when the local mine turns out to contain nothing but fool's gold, Blue observes that the worthless stone is "like the West, like my life: The color dazzles us, but when it's too late we see what a fraud it is, what a poor pinched-out claim." Soon afterward, when unemployment results in the final destruction of the town and the death of many of its residents, Blue comments, "If I hadn't believed, they'd be alive today." Believed, in other words, in the American dream.

That the American dream is a pretty bad deal for all concerned is, of course, a controlling idea in Doctorow's fiction. The dream is responsible for all of it: the mass-produced cars, the TV sets, the Bomb and even, in the end, the full-scale destruction of humanity. The dream, as Emma Goldman explains in Ragtime, causes the masses to "permit themselves to be exploited by the few" by "being persuaded to identify with them." As for the few, all the dream does for them is bury them alive in a depersonalized consumer Disneyland. (Not coincidentally, Doctorow has filled his novels with images of live burial: Houdini buries himself alive and J.P. Morgan sleeps in a pyramid in Ragtime; a mine disaster in Loon Lake buries workers under tons of rock; the Man from Bodie locks a man in a horsedrawn hearse.)

The dark side of the American dream is, needless to say, a familiar literary theme, and by no means an unworkable one. It served Fitzgerald well in The Great Gatsby and Dreiser in An American Tragedy. But it has yet to work for Doctorow. His approach is closer to Upton Sinclair's than to Fitzgerald's: rather than recognize that the novel's path to truth leads, of necessity, through the human soul, he peoples his novels with characters that are little more than hunks of plywood, each with its own sharply defined didactic function. There are victims of the system, such as Coalhouse Walker (the pianist whose car is trashed by firemen and whose fiancee, Sarah, is killed by a militaman in Ragtime) and Susan Isaacson (whose parents are executed for treason in The Book of Daniel). America betrays these victims, takes the lives of their loved ones, drives them to madness, anarchy and violence. Walker commits murder; Susan, suicide.

Then there are the bourgeois apologists, people like Robert Lewin (who adopts Daniel and Susan in The Book of Daniel) and Father in Ragtime. They're aware of the system's injustices--against the Isaacson and Walker, respectively--and even try to do something about them. Lewin "belongs to committees, and practices law for poor people . . . is big in the ACLU" and is "a demonstrator against Dow Chemical recruiters," and Father puts up bail for Walker. But it isn't enough for Doctorow, as he makes clear in the last sentence of the paragraph about Lewin: "When he has the time, he likes to read The New Yorker." To Doctorow, it's all clear-cut: Lewin and Father, for all their humanitarianism, are part of the system. They've bought the dream, and unlike Isaacson and Walker, they are not about to chuck it for a one-way trip to the barricades. Doctorow goes out of his way to make them look silly on this account: when Susan argues with Daniel about her involvement in a revolutionary movement, Lewin complains, "If you can't conduct a civil discussion I'd prefer no discussion at all"; when Father bails Walker out of jail, he's "put off because Coalhouse Walker was barely civil in his gratitude."

That there's so little room amid all the betrayal and injustice, the madness and violence, the noble anarchy and detestable civility, for a little individual human psychology makes following the fortunes of Doctorow's characters a frustrating experience. What is it, one cannot help but wonder, that makes Coalhouse Walker so intractable? That makes him, of all the black Americans ever harassed by racists, refuse to walk away from trouble? Why does the death of Sarah transform him into a twentieth-century Nat Turner? Doctorow throws a line in somewhere about "the violence underlying all principle," and walker is a man of principle, who takes the ideas he holds--ideas about justice, dignity and vengeance--as seriously as survival. Fine. But how did he get that way? Doctorow gives us no clue. To him, Walker is merely a victim of the system.

The way Doctorow sees it, we're all victims. Sometimes it seems he reserves his pity for those who make it: Mindish, the Isaacsons' supposed Communist collaborator in The Book of Daniel, who spends his declining years in bourgeois Santa Barbara bliss; Tateh, the destitute socialist in Ragtime who strikes it rich in Hollywood and gives himself a title; Joe, the working-class drifter in Loon Lake who is adopted by a millionaire and rises through the ranks of the Central Intelligence Agency, eventually becoming an ambassador. Happy endings? Not at all. The way Doctorow sees it, America has played its dirtiest trick on such rags-to-riches figures. By making them well-to-do, it's robbed them of the integrity and independence of mind they derived from being down and out. Success has buried them alive.

And that, believe it or not, is the general idea at work in "Lives of the Poets," the "novella" in Doctorow's new book, Lives of the Poets: Six Stories and a Novella. Actually, it's not a novella at all; it's a sixty-page spiel by an unnamed speaker who, like Doctorow, is a successful 50ish liberal New York Jewish novelist. This unnamed novelist goes on about his mistress, his children, his broken marriage, his friends' marriages, his health and age, the erosion of America's moral values, the rise of ridiculous religions, the number of minorities in New York and his memories of Kenyon College (where Doctorow also went to school).

Above all, the unnamed novelist goes on about his "commitment." He's always been deeply committed, but it's not as easy as it used to be. His problem is this: he's a rich, famous writer, a friend of "Norman," a regular on the fashionable dinner-party circuit in Manhattan. He's oppressed by success. He's being killed with comfort. At a party at the Dakota apartment house, he watches his writer friend Leo do some serious drinking because "He's quite brilliant and has never made a dime"; but our hero knows who's really suffering here: "Oh Leo, I think, when you make a little money from your work you'll see that trouble is." And he's serious.

But he hasn't given up. He has abandoned his wife, kids and suburban home to live in a Greenwich Village high-rise with his young mistress. Clearly, this is meant to be taken, at least in part, as a heroic act: the man's trying to climb out of that middle-class grave, to renew his "commitment." He's like Younger Brother in Ragtime, who leaves his white-bread family to put on blackface and join the Coalhouse Walker gang. And--what do you know?--the man pulls it off. At the end of the story, he overcomes his stasis, his love of bourgeois comfort, and takes a family of Central American refugees into his high-rise flat. But you don't believe it for a minute. For one thing, it's out of character. For another, our unnamed novelist's act of mercy is a tired conceit that Doctorow has overused. His Ins are always harboring Outs, thereby exposing themselves to a therapeutic measure of adversity and anarchy otherwise unavailable to them. In Welcome to Hard Times, Blue takes in Molly and Jimmy after the devastations wreaked by the Man from Bodie leave them homeless; in The Book of Daniel, the Lewins take in the Isaacson children; in Ragtime, Mother takes in Sarah and her baby; in Loon Lake, the millionaire F.W. Bennett takes in Joes. Thanks to its ending, "Lives of the Poets" manages to seem both aimless and contrived, a neat trick.

The same is true of other stories in Lives of the Poets. Most of them are about lonely, estranged or disturbed people who are the victims of nature (symbolized variously by snow, shad ows, water), history and/or America "The Writer in the Family," for in stance, begins promisingly as a story about a New York City boy in 1955 whose salesman father has died and who writes letters in his father's name to convince his grandmother that the family is alive and well in Arizona. "To the immigrant generation of my grand mother, Arizona was the American equivalent of the Alps, it was. . . . success." The premise is intriguing, and we expect the boy to grow in some way as a result of his letter writing; but what we get instead is yet another diatribe about dehumanization. The boy notices his father's collection of sea novels as if for the first time and realizes with a start that his father never aspired to spend his life buried alive in a deadly-dry place like Arizona--what he wanted was to escape, to go to sea. End of story.

"Willi" also has a boy hero. His mother and tutor have an affair; the boy tells his father; the father attacks the mother; the boy protects her: "I was enraged, I pushed her back and jumped at him, pummeling him, shouting that I would kill him." Doctorow sets this story in Galicia in 1910 so that his narrator can close by saying, "All of it was to be destroyed anyway, even without me." The story, you see, is really about betrayal, violence, World War I and, above all, the advent of the American century.

And so it goes. In Lives of the Poets, there are no lives and no poets, only a handful of familiar ideas. The styles are familiar too. In some of these fictions ("Lives of the Poets," "The Writer in the Family," "The Hunter") Doctorow spells things out in that scrupulously simple Ragtime prose; in others ("Willi," "The Water Works," "The Foreign Legation," "The Leather Man") he tries to be artsy and mysterious in the manner of Loon Lake. Play it one way or the other, the song is always the same.
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Author:Bawer, Bruce
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 17, 1984
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