As in the writings of many prophets, the writings of E.L. Doctorow contain texts to interpret them by: “We will over-throw America in images.” “He [God] enlists the help of naturally righteous humans who become messengers or carriers of his miracles, or who deliver their people. Each age has by trial to achieve its recognition of Him…” (The Book of Daniel).
The special trial sent to Doctorow is to be not only righteous but an artist, thought since Victorian times to be antithetical; either the artist must “sit as God holding no form of creed, / But contemplating all,” in the words of Tennyson’s poem, or do a little peace marching, but to try to do both together is to start with a special handicap, like a sack-runner in the regular race. Doctorow is an artist struggling in a message sack, or a messenger beguiled by a sackful of artist’s playthings—possibilities of language and form—but all the same he runs a swift race.
That is to say, Loon Lake is a work both formally ambitious and doctrinaire. It is narrated mainly by Joe Korzeniowski, aka Joe of Paterson, the son of parents defeated by their ugly and poor urban environment, a bad kid who robs the poor box, beats up priests, and lives without compunctions by his wits and good looks. Eventually, after the events of this book have taken place, he rises to such establishment positions as head of the CIA, chairman of industrial boards, heir of the rich capitalist F.W. Bennett.
The action is simple, though the structure of the work is not. Joe leaves home, tramps around, works in a carnival, and during his picaresque wanderings near Loon Lake, Bennett’s private retreat, he is attacked by savage dogs. While convalescing there, he meets Warren Penfield, failed poet and drunk, son of poor miners, and now “poet-in-residence.” Other characters are Bennett’s wife Lucinda, an aviatrix who reminds us of Amelia Earhart; Clara, mistress first of a gangster guest at Loon Lake, then of Bennett, later of Penfield and Joe; and the Jameses, Sandy and Red, whom Joe meets after escaping from Loon Lake with Clara. He lives with Clara for a time and works in a factory, where he is impressed with the beauty of this “complex society with standards of conduct honor serious moral judgement.” After Red, an apparently nice union guy, is unmasked as a company operative and murdered, probably by other company men, Joe befriends, but later deserts, Sandy, then returns to Loon Lake and the sponsorship of Bennett.
The narrative projects events up until the time of writing (1970s) and backward into the childhoods of Penfield and Joe, with the main action set in the 1930s. Joe’s account is presented in both the first and third person:
I stand poised on the edge and dive into the water. With powerful strokes learned in the filth of industrial rivers Joe swims a great circle crawl in the …