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World's Fair by E. L. Doctorow (Random House: $17.95; 288 pp.)

Richard Eder

November 24, 1985|RICHARD EDER

"World's Fair" is E. L. Doctorow's portrait of the artist as a young child. The author's alter-ego, Edgar Altschuler, grows into an awareness that the world stretches far beyond the protective confines of a Bronx Jewish household.

It was a quieter passage than Stephen Daedalus' vehement breakout from a constricted Dublin youth, and conducted with far greater cautiousness. Yet in some ways, Edgar's constriction, because more cherishing, was greater; the great world more ominous, and his passage more painful.

Less grand too, and less universal. E. L. Doctorow, like everyone else, perhaps including the author of "Finnegan's Wake," is no James Joyce. What he is, though, is a writer of implacable intelligence. The subject of growing up is not so much a literary theme as a literary subspecies. Yet "World's Fair," like a superior marathon runner, starts in a crowd of thousands and bit by bit--there's Philip Roth, right beside you; and watch out for Saul Bellow's left elbow--is running, not necessarily in front, but unmistakably by itself.

The book jacket labels "World's Fair" a novel; yet Doctorow's first name is Edgar. He, like his protagonist-narrator, was born in 1931 and reared in New York; and his parents, like professedly fictional Edgar's, were named Rose and David. Whether Altschuler--something like "old scholar"--is a play on Doctorow, who knows? Call it autobiographical fiction, a bending of an artist's cool light on the materials of his childhood.

It takes Edgar from his first memories, at age 2 or 3, when he would wet his bed and be moved, changed and clean, into the warmth of his parents' bed; to age 9 when, as a runner-up prize winner in an essay contest, he is able to invite his family to the World's Fair in Queens.

The Altschulers live in a comfortable Bronx apartment, then in a slightly less comfortable one. A second move takes them to even smaller quarters in a less desirable neighborhood, but still in the secure brick Jewish section and away from the Irish and Italian slums. The family is trying to stay in the middle class but is never entirely free from threat.

David, an expansive, vaguely unsound businessman, loses his downtown music store and takes a salesman's job. Rose, on a dollar a day for housekeeping, is dutiful, intelligent and angry. Donald, Edgar's brother and eight years older, is both distant and kind. If the Depression and a crooked business partner constitute outside threats, there are tensions on the inside that run beneath the love and nurturing.

There is nothing remarkable about this nor about any of the events and memories of Edgar's childhood. What gives "World's Fair" its character is its quality of recollection and narration; the mingling of experience as a child sees it and as an adult remembers it; and above all, the sense of a consciousness breaking through itsshell.

There is a curious evolution. The youngest memories are rendered with a marvelous clarity and perfect detail. There are games, family visits and expeditions. There are the neighborhood shops: for example, the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co.--before its metamorphosis into the A&P supermarket--with sawdust on the floor, a pervasive smell of coffee, and the clerk toting up the purchases with a pencil on the edge of a shopping bag.

Everything is evoked with singular perfection, yet it lies inert. There is none of the feeling of transcendence, mystery, or possibility that marks other childhood accounts. Edgar was a young prince, but a prince resembling Zigismund in "Life Is a Dream": imprisoned. He was dominated by his need to feel special and by his dependence upon grown-ups to provide him with that feeling.

He couldn't stand Mother Goose, for example, nor tales of the gods or saints, nor anything that suggested the random commonality and capriciousness of life. Only as he grows older, more independent, more powerful, do his recollections change from perfect pictures to something that stirs. Life was not what happened to you but what you could do.

It is a double stirring, away from his family's ability to define him and into his own possibilities. "One had as resources only one's self, one's brother, one's parents and then, perhaps, President Roosevelt," a narrator writes of his early sense of circumscription. Later, at the circus, he watches the clown who begins by clumsily imitating the aerialists and suddenly emerges as the star of the high wire. "It was not merely that I, the sniffler with the red nose, would someday in my good time reveal myself to be a superman among men. . . . What was first true was then false, a man was born from himself."

Doctorow evokes Edgar's gradual maturing with something close to magic. His account of a near-fatal peritonitis manages to convey a child's sense of death from the inside; it may be the most remarkable passage in the book.

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