From Publishers Weekly
As one might expect of Doctorow, the title is ironic. In settings that range across the U.S., most of the alienated characters in the five stories here find life anything but sweet as they struggle to surmount the stigmas of poverty, lack of education and their instincts to gamble against the odds. Three of the male protagonists are passive and amoral; attempting to defend their irrational behavior, each reminds himself that he is not stupid. All of themâ"a young grifter who dutifully abets his mother's murderous greed on a farm near Chicago ("A House on the Plains"); a love-besotted accessory to a kidnapping in California (the slyly humorous "Baby Wilson"); and a cuckolded member of a religious cult commune in Kansas ("Walter John Harmon")â"share a capacity for self-delusion and self-preservation. The two female protagonists attempt to alter fate and find themselves buffeted by the inescapable force of male power. The protagonist of "Jolene: A Life" is forced into a cross-country hegira in pursuit of a sweet land where she won't be an outsider. Scared and desperate despite her cool facade, Jolene becomes a victim in every relationship. If the story's denouement veers too close to soap opera, Doctorow's empathetic character portrayal redeems the plot twists. The most riveting narrative, "Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden," describes a presidential administration that is secretive, arrogant and contemptuous of ordinary citizens. In this knowing treatment of the cynical abuse of power, Doctorow uses the spare, laconic style endemic to thrillers and builds suspense with sure strokes. Boring like a laser into the failures of the American dream, he captures the resilience of those who won't accept defeat.
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Each critic professes great respect for Doctorow, who, at age 73 and many awards later, has earned it. However, there the split begins. Many critics hail these stories, four of which were published previously in The New Yorker, as an achievement that perfectly captures the American nation’s mood, its aberrant characters, and dark underbelly. But others dismiss the book as a slim, shallow effort that does not live up to Doctorow’s past work. Common complaints? “A House on the Plains” doesn’t fit in with the other four stories, and “Child, Found Dead in the Rose Garden,” which could have been a powerful political piece, doesn’t live up to its promise.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.
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