It was a very good year: Doctorow's `Lives of the Poets'

Lives of the Poets: A Novella and Six Stories, by E. L. Doctorow. New York: Random House. 145 pp. $14.95. Looking back at 1984's fiction, I see a year in which America's major ``name'' writers -- Mailer, Updike, Oates, Vidal, Bellow, Didion, Heller, and others -- basically produced the kind of work we've come to expect from them.

The major surprises appeared in fiction from other parts of the world -- the complex, prolix political novels of Josef Skvorecky, Vasily Aksyonov, and Milan Kundera, plus Mario Vargas Llosa's great historical novel ``The War of the End of the World'' -- and in a stunning array of accomplished first books by American writers.

The names that emerged with most honor, in my opinion, in 1984 are those of beginning novelists Harriet Doerr, William McPherson, Jayne Anne Phillips, Padgett Powell, and Katherine Kramer.

But the best work of fiction I read last year was E. L. Doctorow's ``Lives of the Poets,'' a subtle and oddly moving meditation on the relationship between a writer's work and his personal life. This book may have silenced for all time the old complaint that writing about writers is, by definition, hermetic and uninteresting.

In this instance, we're increasingly absorbed in understanding how the artist revisits inhibiting, often traumatic experiences and reshapes them into objects that offer at least illusions of satisfactory completeness and control.

We also observe something so rare in contemporary fiction that it seems a virtual innovation: one man's progression away from psychological confusion and alienation toward a wider understanding of his human connectedness, a development that signals genuine moral growth.

The book begins with six widely varied short stories. In the first, ``The Writer in the Family,'' set in the mid-1950s, a boy named Jonathan is asked to help conceal the sudden death of his father from the latter's ``ancient mother,'' who lives in a nursing home. Jonathan writes her letters, ostensibly from his father in Arizona, where the family is supposed to have moved to begin a new life.

The dishonesty worries Jonathan, but the thrill of creating an imaginary existence for his deceased father proves mysteriously exhilarating. Finally Jonathan resolves the dilemma in a way that pays respect to the dead -- and gains for him an understanding that is crucial to his development as a writer.

In the most intensely dramatic story, ``Willi,'' set in Galicia in 1910, an adolescent boy discovers his mother in adultery with his tutor, decides to betray her to his father, and has to live with the consequences of this choice. The family's near-undoing is also a premonition of the ruin war will soon bring.

Other stories describe the body of a drowned child callously handled by workers (in ``The Water Works'') who retrieve it; the emotional odyssey of a lonely woman teacher whose forays after meaningful relationships expose her to inexplicable violence (``The Hunter''); and a suburbanite abandoned by his family, eavesdropping on the ``disasters'' suffered by his neighbors, who's caught in a terrorist bombing (``The Foreign Legation'').

There's a downward modulation from the explosive plot twists that dominate these stories in the sixth one, ``The Leather Man.'' This is an essay-like series of anecdotes and images (partly indebted to Hawthorne's story ``Wakefield'') about people leading surreptitious, or ``second'' lives, and who embody ``the action of hiding out,'' as Doctorow writes, or ``estrange[ment] from society.''

Finally, there's the title novella, the first-person confession of another Jonathan -- the middle-aged author of the preceding stories, who is presently separated from his Connecticut family and living in a Manhattan apartment.

There he observes and records the colorful urgency and menace of his urban surroundings. Jonathan sees himself a stranger in an ``immigrated universe'' in which people are perpetually rootless and unaccommodated, their social and ethnic patterns in constant flux.

This Jonathan is obsessed with his deteriorating physical condition. He dabbles in ``gourmet vegetarian cooking'' and halfheartedly explores ``various paths to fulfillment.'' He broods about the lives of the city intellectuals whose circle he's a part of. He wants to divorce his wife for a younger woman, who decides, however, that she cannot commit herself to him. So Jonathan starts to sink under the weight of disengagement and moral aimlessness.

His disorientation and unhappiness seem to him a kind of prayer for deliverance. So, boldly moving away from his former aloofness, Jonathan responds to appeals to aid the cause of Central American refugees in New York and turns his apartment into a center for ``alien'' families. He steps out of his self-absorption and makes a connection and commitment that promise to change his life.

This turnabout echoes the action of the boy Jonathan which concludes ``The Writer in the Family.'' And, as we observe the adult Jonathan's recall of his embattled childhood and adolescence and later life, we understand how the stories are imaginative extensions of his own experiences and feelings -- ironic echoes of sentiments he reconsiders and grows beyond. The many connections are beautifully fashioned, resonant, and moving.

The emphasis on social consciousness and political activism strongly present in Doctorow's earlier work (such as ``The Book of Daniel'' and ``Ragtime'') is here presented in a compact and coherent fable and a style of admirable epigrammatic clarity. Doctorow's precise phrasing and sharp imagery express his meanings so swiftly and conclusively that an enormous amount of felt life saturates this small book. Some readers may want to be forewarned that the sexual detail is explicit and the language often coarse. But most readers will probably be grateful for this insight into a creative imagination, and surprised to find how much of ourselves we see in the tried and troubled Jonathan.

Bruce Allen reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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