All the Time in the World by E. L. Doctorow

My book club has been doing a series on short stories. We always have lots to discuss; everyone has their favorites, and even the most time-crunched folks in the group find time to read a few stories.

One collection we read recently is E. L. Doctorow’s All the Time in the World. In his introduction, Doctorow explains that what draws these stories together is that they deal with people who are “in some sort of contest with the prevailing world.” In “Wakefield,” a man who feels emotionally estranged from his family decides to start spying on them instead of living with them, and in the process learns a lot about himself as well as about them. “Jolene: A Life” helped me understand how a well-meaning person can become trapped in a series of bad decisions and how hard it is to reverse the trend.

These stories are so well crafted that they can be frightening in their power to take you places you hope you will never go. “Walter John Harmon” is told from the point of view of a man who is deeply brainwashed by a cult leader, and through his twisted logic you can see the makings of a disaster like Waco’s military standoff or Jim Jones’ mass suicide. “Willi” presents the horrifying spectacle of a 13-year-old boy coming face to face with his mother’s infidelity at a crucial point in his own adolescent development, and the grim humor of “A House on the Plains” makes the grisly details of that story barely palatable.

I think “The Writer in the Family” might be the best short story I have ever read. It succinctly demonstrates how other people can manipulate us and how difficult it is to extricate ourselves. On the other hand, I could not make any sense of the title story, “All the Time in the World.” Perhaps that is that the point? Maybe someone out there can explain it to me.

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