Who: E.L. Doctorow
What: PEN/Faulkner Reading Series
When: Friday, January 12, 2007
Last Friday a performance of King Lear at the Folger Theater, where E.L. Doctorow was scheduled to read, sent the writer across the street to the sanctuary of the Lutheran Church of the Reformation. Like a popular expelled pastor, the New York writer's flock followed him—and by the time he took to the podium, his bald head shining in the fractured streetlight that streamed through the stained glass windows, the pews were as packed as if it were a Sunday morning.
Few writers can bring people out like Doctorow. His novels such as Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, and last year's The March have endeared him to generations of readers hungry for American epics and tired of the gadgetry and pomposity that pervades contemporary fiction.
The March, which won the 2006 PEN/Faulkner award, is the story of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman's infamous and almost mythical march through the Carolinas and Georgia in the waning days of the Civil War. So immense was the topic—it is really the story of an entire civilization on the move—that Doctorow abandoned his patent first-person narration, opting instead to be an omniscient narrator, the technique used to much acclaim by Washington-writer Edward Jones in The Known World, a novel similar to The March in tone and historicity. Jackson Bryer, long-time University of Maryland literature professor and emcee of the reading, called those two novels the best written in the past five years.
Needless to say, the Washington audience, as evidenced by the hardbacks thumbed in their laps, expected Doctorow to read from The March. What they got instead was a short story from Doctorow's little-known 2004 collection Sweet Land Stories, entitled "Walter John Harmon"—a tale about a small-town Kansas mechanic turned cult leader after his miraculous escape from a deadly tornado-alley twister.
In the story, which is reminiscent of Flannery O'Connor's finest, the townspeople follow Harmon with unfaltering faith even after he takes their money and abandons the compound to run away with one of their wives, an occurrence the elders hilariously justify as a "prophecy fulfilling itself by its negation."
Whether Doctorow had a motive in selecting such a story to read in a church still decorated with Christmas banners and poinsettias is debatable. In the Q&A after the reading, he skirted the question with a Bronx-type, Robert DeNiro grin on his face. But writers are not preachers, and on Friday Doctorow did not deliver a sermon. Rather the crowd got the rare treat of watching a writer become a storyteller.
The silver pipes of the organ, the images in the stained windows, the bright leaves of the poinsettias—these all disappeared in the sweep of the story.