Monday, January 20, 2014

The Waterworks by E.L. Doctorow

I have always admired E.L. Doctorow since I first read Ragtime back in 1976.  I met him that year at the 92nd Street YMCA in New York City.  Over the years he has published 15 novels and some collections of essays.  I lost track of him for a few years, but I resumed my interest with his 2009 work, Homer and Langley, a fictionalized account of two reclusive brothers living in New York.  Now I am trying to catch up with a few of his novels I have missed over the years.  The Waterworks, published in 1994, is another installment in the history and politics of The Big Apple.

Martin Pemberton is a free lance writer for a New York daily newspaper in the decade following the end of the War between the States.  His editor, Mr. McIlvaine, considers him his best writer, and so he accommodates Martin’s sometimes peculiar work habits.  Martin is estranged from his father after writing an essay which attempts to depict the dark side of his father’s wealth.  The essay hit home, and revealed greed corruption, and a financial interest in the slave trade.

One day, Martin appears at the office of the editor to turn in his latest article for the paper.  Martin is disheveled, bloodied, and raving about seeing his father, Augustus, who had died several years prior.  At his death, the widow, Sarah, and her young son, Noah, found themselves destitute and living on the charity of Sarah’s sister.

As a prominent man, numerous citizens had attended his funeral, so Martin’s ravings were considered just that.  However, McIlvaine thought he saw something of the truth in Martin’s behavior, and when he left the office and disappeared for a few days, he became concerned. 

Thus begins McIlvaine’s investigation into the life and circumstances of Augustus Pemberton and his connection to Boss Tweed and the corruption rampant in New York at the time.

The novel begins with somewhat turgid prose typical of the 19th century, but as the editor uncovers more and more details of the family, the narrative picks up a head of frenzy to solve the mystery of Martin’s disappearance.  In this passage, Doctorow describes New York in 1870.  He writes, “You may think you are living in modern times, here and now, but that is the necessary illusion of every age.  We did not conduct ourselves as if we were preparatory to your time.  There was nothing quaint or colorful about us.  I assure you, New York after the war was more creative, more deadly, more of a genius society than it is now.  Our rotary presses put fifteen, twenty thousand newspapers on the street for a penny or two.  Enormous steam engines powered the mills and factories, Gas lamps lit the streets at night.  We were three quarters of a century into the Industrial Revolution” (11-12).

E.L. Doctorow
 The novel reminded me of a BBC import about New York during the same time period.  Copper tells the story of the corruption, poverty, and near chaos of the time.  Many of Doctorow’s events were paralleled in the series which recently completed its second season.  I am anxiously awaiting the third.

If you are not familiar with E.L. Doctorow, The Waterworks is as good a place to start your journey as any of his novels.  I haven’t read them all, but I have never read on I did not thoroughly enjoy.  5 stars

--Chiron, 1/20/14

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