The imaginative universe of E. L. Doctorow is as unbounded in time as it is spatially restricted by his love and hatred of New York. He travels through history by means of inference, from old buildings. His characters are like genies conjured up by the mental stroking of New York City landmarks--the Morgan Library in "Ragtime," Bathgate Avenue in "Billy Bathgate," the fairgrounds in "World's Fair," P.S. 70 in "The Book of Daniel."
His new book, "The Waterworks," seems to have been inspired by the reservoir and dam at Croton, just north of New York City. (I venture this guess in part because Croton appears in the book and in part because I've been there myself. I've looked out on the imposing dam, the impounded water and I've had the thought: There's a novel here.)
Doctorow has found the novel not in any realistic history of the waterworks but in their mythic being, their symbolic pairing of nature's immensity and civilization's presumption. What makes Doctorow our most exciting historical novelist, aside from sheer talent and audacity, is his perception that history can only be reconstructed, never re-experienced. However anxious a character named Eisenhower may be on the eve of D-day, it's hard for readers in 1994 to share in his suspense. Hindsight inevitably estranges us from historical figures, punctures the illusion of their free will, and so undermines the sense of identification on which realism depends. This is why Doctorow's best novels ("Ragtime," "Billy Bathgate") aspire less to be imitations of life than to be sophisticated toys for grownups.
The setting of "The Waterworks" is New York City in 1871. The industrialized North has recently won the Civil War, and Boss Tweed and his ring are milking a metropolis financially engorged by victory. "Almost a million people called New York home, everyone securing his needs in a state of cheerful degeneracy. Nowhere else in the world was there such an acceleration of energies. A mansion would appear in a field. The next day it stood on a city street with horse and carriage riding by."
The narrator of the novel, whose voice is heard here, is a newspaper editor named McIlvaine, a man whose poetic gifts do interesting battle with his rationalism. In lieu of children, the unmarried McIlvaine has a "clutch" of free-lance writers, and one afternoon his favorite of them, an angry young man named Martin Pemberton, comes into the newspaper office with a bloodied face and torn shirt and says: "He's alive . . . my father, Augustus Pemberton. He is alive."
McIlvaine the rationalist knows that Augustus Pemberton, a vilely wealthy wartime profiteer and former slave trader, has been dead and buried for half a year. He shrugs off the son's words as "a poetic way of characterizing the wretched city that neither of us loved, but neither of us could leave." Soon enough, however, Martin vanishes from New York. The story he leaves behind with friends contains the first of the series of powerful images that together form the novel's mainspring.
In roaming lower Manhattan in a rainstorm, it seems, Martin has caught sight of a horse-drawn city omnibus occupied by six somber men in black coats and black top hats. "They are old men, or ill enough to look old, and eerily unmindful of the world." One of them, from the egg-like wen on the back of his neck, Martin identifies positively as his father.
Lest there be any doubt about the young man's sanity, we learn that the same thing has happened a second time, on 42nd Street during a snowstorm. Again a public conveyance, again the men in black. And again a glimpse of old Augustus, "who at the same moment turns an incurious gaze upon (Martin). A moment later the entire equipage is swallowed up by the storm."
These twin sightings, with their Gothic atmospherics, set the novel's machinery in motion. To reveal more of the story would spoil the book's main pleasure, which consists of McIlvaine's investigation of Martin's disappearance, the alternate confounding and confirming of his rationalism. "The Waterworks" is a detective quest of exceptional single-mindedness.
Exceptional, and in some ways lamentable. Readers of this book will wait in vain for the irony and sensuality of "Ragtime," the sumptuous prose and vivid characters of "Billy Bathgate," the viscerality of "The Book of Daniel." Despite the occasional anachronism (my Webster's has him using \o7 intelligentsia\f7 35 years too early), the novel is notable for sounding genuinely old-fashioned. The author achieves a woodenness of character reminiscent of William Dean Howells, and the narration tends, like much of Wilkie Collins, to be both laborious and overheated.