Friday, November 13, 2009

The Waterworks

In preparation for “Homer and Langley” I have decided to tackle E.L Doctorow’s “The Waterworks” first. I’m not a chronological person by nature. In fact, I never read short story collections cover to cover, but skip around because I find that to be more satisfying. I might as well be talking cantaloupes and iPods because there is little, if any, correlation between short stories and novels much less M.O.s for reading them. And, for good measure, there really is no prescribed way to approach an author’s oeuvre.

Actually, I am already familiar with a couple of the chapters from “Homer and Langley” because I recently had the good pleasure of listening to Doctorow read aloud from his newly minted libro. I find the premise, an insider account of the Collier brothers, intriguing although I find the opening “I’m Homer the blind brother,” a bit over-the-top in its attempt to connect with the old world’s storytelling canon. Nonetheless, I have opted to read his mid nineties work about an obsessed newsman.

“The Waterworks” chronicles the life of McIlvaine, a newspaper man and his search for his lost freelancer, Martin Pemberton. That’s the tip of the iceberg. “The Waterworks” is much more than a who done it caper. It’s about seizing ghosts from our past. I imagine, Doctorow’s newsman narrator wincing at the sound of this. He scoffs at the notion of ghosts existing and yet he is plagued by his own ghosts, the papery-thin children hawking papers and flowers in the street and the boy who drowned in the reservoir. Like most Doctorow novels “The Waterworks” flirts with a creative brand of historical fiction. At times, it reads almost as a detective novel as the cantankerous McIlvaine checks in on the missing Pemberton’s fiancée Ms. Tisdale, the lush painter Wheeler, and the Reverend Grimshaw, and so on. McIlvaine is true to his ilk and reports the facts but every once in a while lets on that he is a human being.

There’s something Sinclairian about Doctorow’s novel “The Waterworks” the way the Bronx Bard zeroes in on the inequities caused by the Industrial Revolution. Newsman Mclvaine’s objectivity has a way of unraveling when examining the raggedy paperboys who are responsible for pushing the papers. He describes these “street urchins” and “street rats” as being unremarkable as paving stones.

McIlvaine becomes absorbed in his quest to find Pemberton. It is the confluence of his journalistic acumen and his budding conscience. For me, this is where the story takes off. He develops an affinity for the widow Sarah Pemberton, Martin’s mother, and is enamored by her mothering the youngest boy. This is the flash of McIlvaine’s underbelly— a lightning fast glimmer.

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