A Book Review By Stefan Vlahov
E.L. Doctorow’s debut Welcome to Hard Times is a relatively minor work compared to his later efforts. The author, mostly known for historical fiction epics, turns in an old school tale in the Western genre that doesn’t aim for the grandiosity of Larry McMutry or the psychological complexity of Cormac McCarthy, electing instead to keep it simple – a single setting with four main characters. The scene is Hard Times – a small town on the Western frontier that’s bound to disappear as quickly as it appeared shortly after a nearby mine opens up. In the first chapter, heck within the first paragraph, Doctorow’s unapologetic prose gives the reader a harsh welcome:
“The Man from Bodie drank down a half bottle of the Silver Sun’s best; that cleared the dust from his throat and then when Florence, who was a redhead, moved along the bar to him, he turned and grinned down at her. I guess Florence had never seen a man so big. Before she could say a word, he reached out and stuck his hand in the collar of her dress and ripped it down to her waist so that her breasts bounded out bare under the yellow light.”
Said man then unleashes a barrage of violence so relentless that the whole town is set on fire, more than half of it’s population is killed-off and the other half decides to leave anyway, lest the bad man returns as quickly as he left post-destruction. This initial chapter speaks to the fragility of the American Dream back when “Manifest Destiny” was all the rage. Towns in places like the Dakotas (like this one) had an expiration date determined either by how long the local mine would hold up or how prone to crime the area was. From then on the book is about the effort by the town’s defacto mayor Blue to rebuild it, with the help of two others who’ve decided to stay behind – a young boy, Jimmy and a prostitute, Molly.
And this is where Doctorow truly shines. Mostly, the book is about Blue’s thoughts and his reactions to the many different characters who pass through town that he tries to recruit to stay. His relationships with Molly and Jimmy are also explored, so much so that those two characters are lent the complexity that most supporting players in Westerns don’t usually get. What keeps the reader interested is that Blue is so easy to root for. He is a rational man who’s gone down an irrational path – rebuilding the town and making it a permanent spot on the map is nigh impossible, and sooner or later, whether the bad man comes back or the mine gives out, the town will simply disappear. The character’s display of naivete fed largely by the pursuit of the aforementioned American Dream lends him with an endearing quality that many can connect with.
Doctorow’s crisp writing style makes this a quick read. He wallows in cliches while turning them on their heads in many parts of this book. He isn’t afraid to indulge in long passages that go into Blue’s thoughts and philosophical beliefs that turn from naive to almost cynical by the time the reader gets to the last few chapters. So in a way, Doctorow does infuse the book with McCarthyian complexity, but does it more subtly, and isn’t afraid of infusing some traditional Western situations into the story. B