If this book were a CD, it would be dubbed Doctorow's Greatest Hits. Newly sprung from the capacious imagination that produced Ragtime and Billy Bathgate, the five short masterpieces in Sweet Land Stories are pitch-perfect, the work of a virtuosic storyteller with enormous range. The misfits and desperados who populate these pages are as diverse as the landscape they inhabit: a murderess and her son in rural Illinois, a religious cultist in Kansas, a baby-snatching couple in California. What do they have in common? The dogged pursuit of their feverish dreams.
Doctorow doesn't write about characters so much as channel them. In "Jolene: A Life," his portrait of a woman who survives incest and a psych ward is eerily authentic. And in "Walter John Harmon," he captures a cuckolded husband's denial with heartbreaking conviction. Enlivened by taut prose and illuminated by an incisive understanding of human behavior, Sweet Land is deeply affecting.