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

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

A 20th Century Odyssey: Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow

Homer &L angley by E.L. Doctorow1.

This is the incident that made Homer & Langley Collyer infamous.  After years of the brothers being hounded by reporters, bill collectors and concerned relatives (all of whom believed their mattresses stuffed with cash), an anonymous call was made to the authorities about a dead body.  When the police attempted to investigate, they couldn’t enter the house.  They couldn’t even open the doors.  They were forced to begin emptying out the building of the accumulated garbage in order to get inside.  Homer was discovered first and pronounced dead of starvation.  It took over two weeks to find Langley’s body, buried under the debris only 10 feet away from his brother.  He’d been bringing Homer food through one of the newspaper tunnels that created a labyrinth throughout the house and had triggered one of his own booby traps.  The body was partially decomposed and eaten by the rats.  He had died first, Homer slowly after.  103 tons of garbage was eventually removed from their Fifth Avenue home, most of it worthless junk.  (These details are taken from Wikipedia and a NY Press article you can find here – and don’t worry, I didn’t just give away the ending).

Two elderly men turning their Fifth Avenue mansion into a landfill, which they eventually become a part of, hardly seems the stuff of great literature.  But E.L. Doctorow manages to create in Homer & Langley a story that transcends its subjects in ways that only the best historical fiction can do.  He accomplishes this mainly by playing fast and loose with the facts.

Those facts are as follows (and I’m going to try my best to keep this brief):  Langley was the younger brother and the pianist – roles Doctorow assigns to Homer.   Neither brother seems to have served in WWI, nor did their parents die in the Influenza Pandemic.  Those incidents are most likely part of the fiction of the book, made up by the author in order to get the plot rolling.  The actual Collyer parents did not die until the boys were men in their late 40’s.  Homer did not go blind until age 52 (in the novel this happens while he is still young).  Both brothers held jobs.  Homer practiced law and Langley was a concert pianist.  The hoarding did not seem to have started in earnest until they were both well past mid-life.

I include this contrast between fact and fiction to show how integral a novelist’s choices are to the success of a novel.  The liberties Doctorow takes allow him to enlist a blind narrator, (named Homer, no less), to tell his story.  Homer’s voice relaying their day-to-day lives takes the events out of the realm of sensationalism and gives them a sense of normalcy.   There is also the double bonus of his blindness, first as a Classical reference and second as allowing the reader to feel the accumulation of objects happening around him.  We experience Homer’s world becoming a smaller and smaller place while never actually seeing it happen.  What he describes to us is only his version, necessarily limited.  When he conveys to us the  reactions of the people  he and Langley collect like so many things throughout the book, we’re left to wonder what is his basis.

Our new friends simply assumed they were to come home with us and we didn’t even make a point of acquiescing, as that would have been in bad form.  It was as if – without knowing any of them or which of them belonged to which name – we’d been inducted into a relaxed and sophisticated fellowship, an advanced society, where ordinary proprieties were square.  That was one of their words.  Also crash, meaning, as I was to learn, boarding with us.  We’d been recognized, is how I felt, as did Langley I could tell, as if with an honorific.  And when these children – there were five who peeled off from the larger group and walked up the steps into our house, two males and three females – saw of what a warehouse of precious acquisitions it was comprised, they were moved beyond measure.  I listened to their silence and it seemed to me churchlike.  They stood in awe in the dim light of the dining room looking upon our Model T on its sunken tires and with the cobwebs of years draped over it like an intricate netting of cat’s cradles, and one of the girls, Lissy – the one I was to bond with – Lissy said, Oh wow! and I considered the possibility, after drinking too much of their bad wine, that my brother and I were, willy-nilly and ipso facto, prophets of a new age.

But unlike the objects Langley brings home, none of the people stay.


Homer as narrator shapes the novel into a kind of reverse Odyssey.  Odysseus and his crew spent 20 years zigzagging the map on their journey home.  In Homer & Langley, the 20th century shuffles through the Collyer’s mansion in a surprisingly orderly fashion.  The end result is no less epic.  The fictional Collyer brothers long outlive the factual ones, and so are allowed to experience the Depression, both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the moonwalk, civil rights and more.  (Events grow fuzzy towards the end of the novel as Homer becomes deaf as well as blind, but my guess is that the end comes around the mid 80’s).    Not only do they collect a century’s trash, they collect its history.  Langley saves and clips decades of newspaper in order to complete his great project – what his brother refers to as “Collyer’s forever up-to-date newspaper”.  Eventually, and increasingly, they find themselves the subject of Langley’s clippings.

The first reporter who rang our bell – a really stupid young man who expected to be invited in, and when we wouldn’t permit that, stood there asking offensive questions, even shouting them out after we had slammed the door – made me realize it was a class of disgustingly fallible human beings who turned themselves into infallible print every day, compounding the historical record that stood in our house like bales of cotton.  If you talk to these people you are at their mercy, and if you don’t talk to them you are at their mercy.  Langley said to me, We are a story, Homer.  Listen to this – and he read this supposedly factual account about these weird eccentrics who had shuttered their windows and bolted their doors and run up thousands of dollars of unpaid bills though they were worth millions.  It had our ages wrong, Langley was called Larry, and a neighbor, un-named, thought we kept women against their will.  That our house was a blight on the neighborhood was never in question.  Even the abandoned peregrine nest up under the roof ledge was held against us.

I said to my brother: How would you run this in Collyer’s forever up-to-date newspaper?

We are sui generis, Homer, he said.  Unless someone comes along as remarkably prophetic as we are, I’m obliged to ignore our existence”.

In Langley’s forever up-to-date paper for something to have meaning it has to be duplicated.  One is never enough.  Like Plato, he is looking for the essence of things and events.  It is just another tie-in Doctorow makes to classical literature.  Yet, the Odyssey is not just a false construct that Doctorow uses to structure his novel.  No forced parallels are drawn – we do not meet the Minotaur or a character who represents Achilles.  Doctorow is too subtle.  He has simply and brilliantly given us the contemporary equivalent – modern man’s story told in epic themes.  Homer & Langley represent our 21st century selves (an interpretation I admit to having trouble accepting in the beginning).

But the reality is impossible to ignore.  Our homes are filled with the things that we collect but do not necessarily need.  Great feats no longer require long journeys from home.  In addition to objects we, like Langley, collect our own history.  Visiting & re-visiting it through the mediums of books, documentaries, lectures, papers, photographs, coursework, etc.   It seems less extreme than the Collyers’ hoarding behavior only because we have the luxury to digitization and storage units.

Homer & Langley is in the end a remarkably uncluttered and beautiful book.   It is one of those novels that will only grow better with re- reading. Each time providing new discoveries. Very, very BookSexy.

Something to look forward to…

Homer &L angley by E.L. Doctorow

Here’s a book I’m looking forward to reading.  Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow. A novel, it is a fictional account of the lives of the Collyer brothers – two NYC legends that Mark Helprin couldn’t have made up on his best day. Definately start clearing off the bedside table for this one!  Release date:   September 1st.

Note:  This will be my first Doctorow novel, who for no good reason I’ve always confused with Caleb Carr.  I think the same person must design both their book jackets.