on 30 September 2015
It is an assured novelist who can relegate plot and particularly a melodramatic plot, while developing both the character of the narrator and of the city that he observes so acutely. On the latter, it is the details that count: dead-man's curve; alienists; contemporary literary culture; the geography of the city, including its water conduits; Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island) in the Easter River); and the fires that, in the early 1870s, were daily and therefore normal in a city that still had a lot of wood in it, even as the “iron fronts” were being built; and so on. New York City – actually Manhattan, which was New York City before incorporation in 1898 – is not mere background or local colour but, in part at least and in the first decade of its phenomenal expansion, the explanation for the almost gothic horrors that are related by McIlvaine, once a newspaper editor, and in the present of the telling of the story, an old man.
It is McIlvaine, in his narration addressing readers with telephones and motor cars, who is at the centre of “The Waterworks”. He is one of American literature’s batchelors: Melville’s Ishmael, Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway, some of Hemingway's characters, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. There is an elegiac tone at times in the elderly narrator's account from his Gramercy Park home of this story of New York's progress and poverty, corruption, robber barons, mass circulation newspapers, and transportation and building inventions. McIlvaine writes against death, knowing that “when the story ends, I will end.” Accordingly, he is wordy and can’t let his story go.
Doctorow, himself, died earlier this year, 2015.
“The Waterworks”, then, is “the visions of an old man. Altogether, they compose a city, a great port and industrial city of the nineteenth-century. ... The people of this city think of it as New York but you may think otherwise. You may think it stands to your New York City today as some panoramic print inverted in its lights and shadows ... companion city of the other side." Doctorow makes an interesting choice in framing the story that McIlvaine tells. He opts for a genre, a dark and mysterious thriller, with a Frankenstein figure, Dr Sartorius, at its centre, a ghost, and a gothic castle, the massive Croton holding reservoir at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue (where the New York Public Library has stood since 1904). There are two distinguished missing persons to find in a city full of lost children and lost men, veterans, “the ragged army of the North”, who shuffle and limp along the streets. And there is contemporary political plotting, focused on Boss Tweed who “ran the city. ... He gave jobs to the immigrants and they stuffed the ballot boxes."
There is uncertainty at the end of this gothic detective story and no public revelation scene. McIlvaine is troubled by the loss of formal retribution but realizes that this leaves the way clear for fiction. E. L. Doctorow is a remarkable historical novelist, the best in the United States since World War Two, and if “The Waterworks” lags behind “The Book of Daniel”, it is, nevertheless, quite an achievement.