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The Waterworks by E. L. Doctorow
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The Waterworks (1994)

by E. L. Doctorow

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There's something magical about Doctorow's writing. The man truly seems to have been transplanted from Victorian New York City into the present just to spin his tales. This one is typically captivating, a really dark story of the power of wealth to forestall death . . . but with a terrible pricetag. ( )
  dickmanikowski | Apr 14, 2014 |
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).

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

--Jim, 1/20/14 ( )
  rmckeown | Jan 20, 2014 |
This book was a Christmas gift from my wife when I was reading a lot of Doctorow. Ragtime is one of my favorite books, but this one didn't do much for me.
  skavlanj | Nov 26, 2013 |
Slight, perhaps a tad over-written... ( )
  bontley | Aug 24, 2013 |
Parte molto bene e con grandi ambizioni, ma quasi subito i commenti della voce narrante soffocano la trama che, trattata diversamente, sarebbe stata trascinante. ( )
  Kazegafukuhi | Aug 10, 2013 |
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For I. Doctorow and Philip Blair Rice
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People wouldn't take what Martin Pemberton said as literal truth, he was much too melodramatic or too tormented to speak plainly.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0812978196, Paperback)

“An elegant page-turner of nineteenth-century detective fiction.”
–The Washington Post Book World

One rainy morning in 1871 in lower Manhattan, Martin Pemberton a freelance writer, sees in a passing stagecoach several elderly men, one of whom he recognizes as his supposedly dead and buried father. While trying to unravel the mystery, Pemberton disappears, sending McIlvaine, his employer, the editor of an evening paper, in pursuit of the truth behind his freelancer’s fate. Layer by layer, McIlvaine reveals a modern metropolis surging with primordial urges and sins, where the Tweed Ring operates the city for its own profit and a conspicuously self-satisfied nouveau-riche ignores the poverty and squalor that surrounds them. In E. L. Doctorow’s skilled hands, The Waterworks becomes, in the words of The New York Times, “a dark moral tale . . . an eloquently troubling evocation of our past.”

“Startling and spellbinding . . . The waters that lave the narrative all run to the great confluence, where the deepest issues of life and death are borne along on the swift, sure vessel of [Doctorow’s] poetic imagination.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Hypnotic . . . a dazzling romp, an extraordinary read, given strength and grace by the telling, by the poetic voice and controlled cynical lyricism of its streetwise and world-weary narrator.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer

“A gem of a novel, intimate as chamber music . . . a thriller guaranteed to leave readers with residual chills and shudders.”
Boston Sunday Herald

“Enthralling . . . a story of debauchery and redemption that is spellbinding from first page to last.”
Chicago Sun-Times

“An immense, extraordinary achievement.”
–San Francisco Chronicle

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:45:02 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

One rainy morning in 1871 young Martin Pemberton, walking down Broadway in lower Manhattan, sees in a passing horse-drawn omnibus several old men in black, one of whom he recognizes as his supposedly dead and buried father. So begins E. L. Doctorow's astounding new novel of post-Civil War New York, where maimed veterans beg in the streets, newsboys fight for their corners, the Tweed Ring operates the city for its own profit, and a conspicuously self-satisfied class of new wealth and weak intellect is all a glitter in a setting of mass misery. As Pemberton tries in vain to track the strange omnibus of old men, he leads us into a city we know and recognize and yet don't know, a ghost city that stands to contemporary New York like a panoramic negative print, reversed in its lights and shadows, its seasons turned round. The increasingly ominous tale is narrated by Pemberton's sometime employer, McIlvaine, the editor of the newspaper for which the young man writes occasional reviews. When Pemberton himself disappears, McIlvaine goes in pursuit of the truth of his freelance's bizarre fate. Layer by layer, he reveals to us a New York more deadly, more creative, more of a genius society than it is now. New technologies transport water to its reservoirs and gaslight to its streetlamps. Locomotives thunder down its streets. Telegraphy sings in its overhead wires, and its high-speed printing presses turn out tens of thousands of newspapers for a penny or two. It is a proudly, heedlessly modern city, and yet...the scene of ancient, primordial urges and transgressions, a companion city of our dreams...a moral hologram generated from this celebrated author's electrifying historical imagination. The Waterworks is a haunting tale of genius and madness in a metropolis that is itself a product of these qualities. Masterfully written and promising to be unforgettable, it is a triumphant addition to E. L. Doctorow's remarkable body of work.… (more)

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