Discernment

It is true that you get accustomed to money very quickly, that the miraculousness of the idea of it wears away and it becomes unremarkable. … Around the neighborhood it became clear that I had money. I bought whole packs of Wings cigarettes and not only smoked them continually but was generous with them. In the pawnshop on Third Avenue where I went for the glasses I found a reversible satin team jacket, black on one side, and then you could turn everything inside out and presto it was a white jacket, and I bought that and strutted in the evenings in it. … So I was wearing that and with my cigarettes and new sneakers and I suppose my attitude, which I might not be able to discern in myself but which must have been quite clear to others, I represented another kind of arithmetic to everyone on my street, not just the kids but the grown-ups too, and it was peculiar because I wanted everyone to know what they figured out easily enough, that it was just not given to a punk to find easy money except one way, but at the same time I didn’t want them to know, I didn’t want to be changed from what I was, which was a boy alive in the suspension of judgment of childhood, that I was the wild kid of a well-known crazy woman, but there was something in me that might earn out, that might grow into the lineaments of honor, so that a discerning teacher or some other act of God, might turn up the voltage of this one brain to a power of future life that everyone in the Bronx could be proud of. I mean that to the more discerning adult, the man I didn’t know and didn’t know ever noticed me who might live in my building or see me in the candy store, or in the schoolyard, I would be one of the possibilities of redemption, that there was some wit in the way I moved, some lovely intelligence in an unconscious gesture of the game, that would give him this objective sense of hope for a moment, quite unattached to any loyalty of his own, that there was always a chance, that as bad as things were, America was a big juggling act and that we could all be kept up in the air somehow, and go around not from hand to hand, but from light to dark, from night to day, in the universe of God after all.

E.L. Doctorow
Billy Bathgate

E.L. Doctorow’s All the Time in the World

Despite the stylistic verve of Doctorow’s famously snappy, streetwise prose, the stories are half-baked and half-hearted, rarely developing any complexity from the dramatic tension of their opening pages. If All the Time in the World is at all worth reading, then, it’s worth reading less for the virtues of the stories it contains than for its capacity to underscore exactly what makes Doctorow’s novels so spectacular. The short story form, defined by brevity and compression, is inimical to Doctorow’s sprawling imagination and freewheeling sensibilities. In his novels, he takes a high-concept premise and teases out its implications in painstaking detail over hundreds of pages, relishing the slow burn and the piecemeal disclosure of something insidious. In his stories, though, his high-concept premises are shoehorned into a literary form that doesn’t allow the same indulgence in digression and detail. The reach of their narrative premises exceeds the grasp of their literary form, and so they burn out in an instant, a flash in the pan, left unremarkable because they are implausible, and implausible because they are underdeveloped.

My review of E.L. Doctorow’s All the Time in the World is online at The Critical Flame.