SWEET LAND STORIES

By E.L. Doctorow. Random House. 147 pp. $22.95

It would be easy to call E.L. Doctorow the preeminent writer of historical fiction in America, but it would also be inaccurate. For if Doctorow has accomplished anything in his long and distinguished career, he has successfully illustrated just how flimsy and artificial the walls surrounding the literary ghetto of "historical fiction" really are.

From his doubt-haunted Western, Welcome to Hard Times; to his seminal recasting of pre-World War I America, Ragtime; through his exquisite, quasi-memoir, World's Fair, to his bold, spectral novel, The Waterworks -- Doctorow has succeeded as no one else has in tying our history to our present and to our future. He has always dug cheerfully, even joyously away at our cozy, received notions of the American past, laying the disturbing truths he has turned up brazenly on our doorstep.

Now the master is back with Sweet Land Stories, his first collection of short fiction since he published the superb Lives of the Poets 20 years ago.

It is a slim volume, only five stories -- yet it shows as well as anything Doctorow has ever written that our present and our supposedly long-buried past are really quite interchangeable. Doctorow has tried his hand at contemporary fiction before -- initially in his brave, experimental Big As Life; more successfully in his most recent novel, City of God -- and here he is able to move seamlessly from one time to another. The first of these stories is set a century or so in the past, the other four more or less in the here and now, but all of them could take place essentially anytime in America. Each of them features the sorts of marginal characters who have always resided on the periphery of our civilization, though the reasons for their presence there differ greatly. Doctorow's protagonists include a pair of serial murderers, a delusional young baby thief, a petty criminal and hustler, a teenage wife, a member of a cult, a mentally fragile young heiress and a disillusioned FBI agent.

And all of them remain, in their own twisted ways, stubbornly optimistic -- a trait that marks them as distinctly American. They scheme, steal, dare, plan and improvise endlessly, still convinced that they can find whatever they are looking for -- money, love, justice, a rationale for their own existence -- somewhere out in the sweet, vast land. Most of them start out west of the Mississippi and tend to slide farther in that direction. Even the addled young lovers in "Baby Wilson," whom we first meet in some Los Angeles slum, manage to end up in Alaska -- after a quick detour to Las Vegas, the undisputed capital of tawdry dreams.

It is Doctorow's genius that he is able to make us sympathetic with even the creepiest of their aspirations. One actually finds oneself rooting for the murderous mother-son duo in "A House on the Plains," the best story in the collection, and one that speaks directly to the underside of the great American push westward, and upward. Doctorow's ability to create such an unlikely identification is due in no small part to his expert use of an elusive, first-person narrator in three of these stories. Semi-naive, subtly disingenuous -- not quite an unreliable narrator per se, but a voice that one begins to suspect is telling us exactly what we want to hear. He uses this technique both to build sympathy for the hard-pressed hustler in "Baby Wilson" -- and to slowly pull it out from under the feet of the lawyer-turned-cult-acolyte in "Walter John Harmon." It is, as well, a marvelous vehicle for Doctorow's typically clean, sparse prose, and the dry wit, even ebullience, that has always served to leaven even his darkest creations.

The two third-person stories work less well, but they also demonstrate the author's fundamental empathy toward his characters. If "Jolene: A Life" reads something like a bad country-western song, with one heart-wrenching cliche after another perpetrated upon its young heroine, Doctorow seems to be suggesting that many American lives are nothing but second acts today: an exhausting treadmill of reinventions, recoveries, remarriages and divorces. Even the weakest story here, "Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden" -- an overly preachy tale about someone leaving the body of a child on the White House grounds -- succeeds in establishing both how far Doctorow's characters are from having any real effect on the world they inhabit, and how stubbornly they refuse to admit this. Can anyone today doubt that the administration in power would react just as it does in the story -- secretly burying the body, threatening and harassing anyone who might leak the news? Or that its troubled protagonist would feel so distant from "the gentlemen who run things" that she laments, "I just thought maybe this could restore them, put them back among us"? Another American on the margins, still hoping to be heard after all this time. *

Kevin Baker is the author of the historical novels "Dreamland" and "Paradise Alley."

E.L. Doctorow