The Waterworks by E.L. Doctorow

Croton Reservoir, 1879

This is my second  time reading an E.L. Doctorow novel, and I’m still becoming familiar with his quirks as an author.   I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read so far, though I don’t feel as stunned upon finishing The Waterworks as I did with Homer and Langley.   It’s a book that takes more time to digest.

While most historical novelists are satisfied with transporting  their readers to a different period, E.L. Doctorow is much more specific.  His goal is to immerse his readers into a precise place within a period – inside the newspaper stacked rooms of the Collyer brothers’ mansion (Homer and Langley) or amidst the crowds and chaos of Sherman’s Army trekking South (The March). The geographic lynchpin of  The Waterworks is New York City’s Croton Reservoir and Aqueduct during the latter part of the 19th Century.  It is central to all the action, as much a character as any person who moves through the narrative.

I’ll tell you here that I was ready to believe in every dark vision if it appeared at the Croton Holding Reservoir.  Which is gone, of course.  Our public library stands there now.  But in those years its massive ivy-covered walls rose over a neighborhood monumental in its silence…. The few brownstones and marble mansions on Fifth Avenue stood aloof from the noisy commerce of the south.  Our Mr. Tweed lived just a block north, practicing the same silence.  It was an unnatural thing, the reservoir.  The bouldered retaining walls were twenty-five feet thick and rose forty-four feet in an inward-leaning slant.  The design was Egyptian.  The corners were relieved by trapezoidal turrets, and bisecting each long wall face were temple doors.  You went in, climbed up a stair to the parapet, and came out in the sky.  From this elevation the rising city seemed to fall back before something that wasn’t a city, a squared expanse of black water that was in fact the geometrical absence of a city.

To call Doctorow’s writing merely “atmospheric” is to do the man a disservice.  He places his reader squarely in the center of a room and constructs an entire world, like a stage set, around him.  Lighting is carefully considered – green light filtering through murky glass, flickering-orange candlelight in a decrepit mansion or the gray, wet darkness of a downpour at night.   Doctorow encases the reader in words.

How to classify this novel…a mystery?  a horror?  literary suspense? steampunk or magical realism?  It’s difficult to say.  The Waterworks is told in the first person by McIlvaine, a newspaper editor not as far removed from Boss Tweed’s New York City as he’d have us believe.  When his favorite freelancer appears at the newspaper office disheveled, wild-eyed and claiming to have seen his dead father in a public carriage, McIlvaine doesn’t think too much of it.  But when that same freelancer goes missing McIlvaine is quick to realize that an exclusive story has fallen into his lap.  He enlists the aid of the only honest cop left in the city, begins interviewing the missing man’s family and friends, and finds himself involved in a Penny dreadful mystery worthy of Wilkie Collins.  But like Collins, Doctorow is always skirting the edge of the implausible and ridiculous – and so McIlvaine’s monotone accounting of events is here a boon.

The story is instilled with the feeling of hindsight.  McIlvaine is telling his tale long after the events have taken place.  He does a lot of second guessing and connecting of the dots. He struggles to understand what really happened – and to answer the more elusive question of why? He is first and foremost a newspaper man, and makes it clear from the start that at the time the events took place he was more interested in the story than the rescue of his missing freelancer.   There’s a thread of guilt underlying his words.  Did he do enough?  Should he, could he, have done more?  The Waterworks is a strange story being pieced together by a flawed man with an uncertain grasp of the facts.

The sense of dramatic that Doctorow so carefully puts into his descriptions of places doesn’t always carry into the story.  There’s a distinctive lack of emotional escalation.  The writing remains consistent in tone throughout, so much so that  the climactic moment of The Waterworks was half over without my realizing it had been reached.  The villain felt like a mere cypher, walking briefly through a few chapters before exiting.  The plot, itself, seems to be nothing more than vehicle for the writing.  It’s very daring when you consider it, and makes for a haunting novel.  If this book was longer than 253 pages I don’t know if I would recommend it… there is the potential of it rambling on and going nowhere.  But as it is, The Waterworks is the perfect length to encapsulate a time, an experience and a place.

Publisher:  Random House Trade Paperbacks, New York (2007).
ISBN:  978 0 8129 7819 3

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