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Sweet Land Stories by E. L. Doctorow



Rating: (Highly Recommended)


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Over many years and much writing, there’s been very little of E. L. Doctorow’s work that hasn’t been exemplary. The five stories in his new collection, Sweet Land Stories, will make readers hungry for more. With his great skill, readers become absorbed in the love, pain, alienation and power of characters often bereft of sympathy. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of “Jolene: A Life,” pp. 57-67:

She married Mickey Holler when she was fifteen. Married him to get out of her latest foster home where her so-called dad used to fool with her, get her to hold him, things like that. Even before her menses started. And her foster mom liked to slap her up the head for no reason. Or for every reason. So she married Mickey. And he loved her—that was a plus. She had never had that experience before. It made her look at herself in the mirror and do things with her hair. He was twenty, Mickey. Real name Mervin. He was a sweet boy if without very much upstairs, as she knew even from their first   date. He had a heel that didn’t touch the ground and weak eyes but he was not the kind to lay a hand on a woman. And she could tell him what she wanted, like a movie, or a grilled-cheese sandwich and a chocolate shake, and it became his purpose in life. He loved her, he     really did, even if he didn’t know much about it.

But anyway she was out of the house now, and wearing a wed­ding ring to South Sumter High. Some of the boys said smutty things but the girls looked upon her with a new respect.

Mickey’s Uncle Phil had come to the justice of the peace with them to be best man. After the ceremony he grinned and said Welcome to our family, Jolene honey, and gave her a big hug that lasted a mite too long. Uncle Phil was like a father to Mickey and employed him to drive one of the trucks in his home oil delivery business. Mickey Holler was almost an orphan. His real father was in the state penitentiary with no parole for the same reason his mother was in the burial ground behind the First Baptist Church. Jolene asked Mickey, as she thought permissible now that she was a relation, what his mother had done to deserve her fate. But he got all flustered when he tried to talk about it. It happened when he was only twelve. She was left to gather for herself that his father was a crazy drunk who had done bad things even before this happened. But anyway that was why Jolene was living now with Mickey under the same roof with his Uncle Phil and Aunt Kay.

Aunt Kay was real smart. She was an assistant manager in the Southern People’s Bank across the square from the courthouse. So between her and Uncle Phil’s oil business, they had a nice ranch house with a garden out back and a picnic table and two hammocks between the trees.

Jolene liked the room she and Mickey occupied, though it looked into the driveway, and she had what she could do to keep it nice, with Mickey dropping his greasy coveralls on the floor. But she under­stood the double obligations of being a wife and an unpaying boarder besides. As she was home from school before anyone finished their jobs for the day, she tried to make herself useful. She would have an hour or so to do some of her homework and then she would go into the kitchen and put up something for everyone’s dinner.

Jolene had always liked school—she felt at home there. Her fa­vorite subject was art. She had been drawing from the time she was in third grade, when the class had done a mural of the Battle of Gettys­burg and she drew more of it than anyone. She couldn’t do much art now at this time in her life as a married woman, not being just for herself anymore. But she still noticed things. She was someone who had an eye for what wants to be drawn. Mickey had a white hairless chest with a collarbone that stood out across from shoulder to shoul­der like he was someone’s beast of burden. And a long neck and a backbone that she could use to do sums. He surely did love her—he cried sometimes he loved her so much—but that was all. She had a sixteenth birthday and he bought her a negligee he picked out him­self at Berman’s department store. It was three sizes too big. Jolene could take it back for exchange, of course, but she had the unsettling thought that as Mickey’s wife all that would happen in her life to come was she would grow into something that size. He liked to watch her doing her homework, which made her realize he had no ambition, Mickey Holler. He would never run a business and play golf on the weekend like Uncle Phil. He was a day-to-day person. He did not ever talk about buying his own home, or moving toward any­thing that would make things different for them than they were now. She could think this of him even though she liked to kiss his pale chest and run her fingers over the humps of his backbone.

Uncle Phil was tall with a good strong jaw and a head of shining black hair he combed in a kind of wave, and he had a deep voice and he joked around with a lot of self-assurance, and dark meaningful eyes—oh, he was a man, of that there was no doubt. At first it made Jolene nervous when he would eye her up and down. Or he would sing a line from a famous love song to her. You are so beautiful to mee! And then he would laugh to let her know it was all just the same horsing around as he was accustomed to doing. He was tanned from being out on the county golf course, and even the slight belly he had on him under his knit shirt seemed just right. The main thing about him was that he enjoyed his life, and he was popular—they had their social set, though you could see most of their friends came through him.

Aunt Kay was not exactly the opposite of Phil, but she was one who attended to business. She was a proper sort who never sat back with her shoes off, and though kind and correct as far as Jolene was concerned, clearly would have preferred to have her home to herself now that Mickey had someone to take care of him. Jolene knew this—she didn’t have to be told. She could work her fingers to the bone and Aunt Kay would still never love her. Aunt Kay was a Yankee and had come to live in the South because of a job offer. She and Uncle Phil had been married fifteen years. She called him Phillip, which Jolene thought was putting on airs. She wore suits and panty hose, always, and blouses with collars buttoned to the neck. She was no beauty but you could see what had interested Phil—her very light blue icy eyes, maybe, and naturally blond hair, and she had the gen­erous figure that required a panty girdle, which she was never with­out.

But now Uncle Phil got in the habit of waking them up in the morning, coming into their room without knocking and saying in his deep voice, “Time for work, Mickey Holler!” but looking at Jolene in the meantime as she pulled the covers up to her chin.

She knew the man was doing something he shouldn’t be doing with that wake-up routine and it made her angry but she didn’t know what she could do about it. Mickey seemed blind to the fact that his own uncle, his late mother’s brother, had an eye for her. At the same time she was excited to have been noticed by this man of the world. She knew that as a handsome smiling fellow with white teeth, Phil would be quite aware of his effect on women, so she made a point of seeming to be oblivious of him as anything but her husband’s uncle and employer. But this became more and more difficult, living in the same house with him. She found herself thinking about him. In her mind Jolene made up a story: how gradually, over time, it would be­come apparent that she and Uncle Phil were meant for each other. How an understanding would arise between them and go on for some years until, possibly, Aunt Kay died, or left him—it wasn’t all that clear in Jolene’s mind.

But Uncle Phil was not one for dreaming. One afternoon she was scrubbing their kitchen floor for them, down on her knees in her shorts with her rump up in the air, and he had come home early, in that being his own boss he could come and go as he liked. She was humming “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and didn’t hear him.

He stood in the door watching how the scrubbing motion was rendered on her behind, and no sooner did she realize she was not alone than he was lifting her from the waist in her same kneeling po­sition and carrying her that way into his bedroom, the scrub brush still in her hand.

That night in her own bed she could still smell Uncle Phil’s after­shave lotion and feel the little cotton balls of their chenille bedspread in the grasp of her fingers. She was too sore even for Mickey’s fum­blings.

And that was the beginning. In all Jolene’s young life she had never been to where she couldn’t wait to see someone. She tried to contain herself, but her schoolwork began to fall off, though she had always been a conscientious student even if not the smartest brain in her class. But it was that way with Phil, too—it was so intense and constant that he was no longer laughing. It was more like they were equals in their magnetic attraction. They just couldn’t get enough. It was every day, always while Aunt Kay was putting up her numbers in the Southern People’s Bank and Mickey, poor Mickey was riding his oil route as Uncle Phil devised it to the furthermost reaches of the town line and beyond.

Well, the passion between people can never be anything but drawn to a conclusion by the lawful spouses around them, and after a month or two of this everyone knew it, and the crisis came banging open the bedroom door shouting her name, and all at once Mickey was riding Phil’s back like a monkey, beating him about the head and crying all the while, and Phil, in his skivvies, with Mickey pound­ing him, staggered around the combined living and dining room till he backpedaled the poor boy up against their big TV and smashed him through the screen. Jolene, in her later reflections, when she had nothing in the world to do but pass the time, remembered everything—she remembered the bursting sound of the TV glass, she remembered how surprised she was to see how skinny Phil’s legs were, and that the sun through the blinds was so bright because day­light saving had come along unbeknownst to the lovers, which was why the working people had got home before they were supposed to. But at the time there was no leisure for thought. Aunt Kay was dragging her by the hair through the hall over the shag carpet and into the kitchen across the fake-tile flooring and she was out the kitchen door, kicked down the back steps, and thrown out like some­one’s damn cat and yowling like one, too.

Jolene waited out there by the edge of the property, crouching in the bushes in her shift with her arms folded across her breasts. She waited for Phil to come out and take her away, but he never did. Mickey is the one who opened the door. He stood there looking at her, in the quiet outside, while from the house they listened to the shouting and the sound of things breaking. Mickey’s hair was stick­ing up and his glasses were bent broken across his nose. Jolene called to him. She was crying; she wanted him to forgive her and tell her it was all right. But what he did, her Mickey, he got in his pickup in his bloody shirt and drove away. That was what Jolene came to think of as the end of Chapter 1 in her life story, because where Mickey drove to was the middle of the Catawba River Bridge, and there he stopped and with the engine still running he jumped off into that rocky river and killed himself.

Thus begins Doctorow’s take on a hard luck story that we’ve all heard in country western songs. Where he takes it, and how he takes us with him, is worth your reading time, especially because of Doctorow’s skill at transforming universal themes. The five stories in this collection are each well crafted and as with all good fiction, will leave readers thinking about life a little differently. Enjoy Sweet Land Stories.

Steve Hopkins, July 26, 2004


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the August 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Land Stories.htm


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