‘The Writer in the Family’ by E.L. Doctorow

Speeding up a little, now, the following six stories are ones that I’ve read and loved since my reawakening. For the most part, therefore, they’re contemporary, since most of my reading time is given over to contemporary fiction – but the first is an oldie that I came across during an EL Doctorow deep-dive a few years back.

I’ve never got why Doctorow’s reputation hasn’t (yet) reached the heights of his contemporaries Philip Roth and John Updike and Saul Bellow – those muscular, turbo-charged chroniclers of the American century. Perhaps it’s because, while he can be equally red-blooded when he chooses (The Book of Daniel; the opening scene in Billy Bathgate) he’s also subtler, lighter, more delicate than they are. World’s Fair is one of the great novels of childhood, and Lives of the Poets, his only collection of short stories, is cast very much in the same vein. I think he’s a genius, at any rate: deft and nimble and deeply affecting. ‘The Writer in the Family’ showcases all of these gifts.

It opens with the death of the teenage narrator’s father. The boy’s aunts have decided, without consulting his mother, that the news must be kept from his aged and wandering grandmother, as the shock would most likely kill her. Instead, they tell her that the family has moved to Arizona, which is why her son isn’t coming to visit anymore. As time passes, though, the grandmother becomes distraught at lack of word from her son, and one of the boy’s aunts calls him up. You’re the writer in the family, she says: could you write a letter from your father, to reassure your grandmother? What follows is a perfect portrait-in-miniature of grief: by voicing him, the boy comes to understand who his father really was, and what, precisely, he has lost. Again, the form is critical here: our experience echoes the narrator’s: at the moment of understanding, the whole thing is over. We’re left bereft. More people should read this (and the rest of Doctorow’s canon while they’re at it).

Originally published in Lives of the Poets, Picador, June 1984. Also in Collected Stories, Random House, 2017