In the course of his career E.L. Doctorow has made a subspecialty of constructing New York Cities, varied by historical setting as well as by architecture of genre and psychological weather. In Ragtime and World’s Fair and Billy Bathgate, for example, the city is carnival and mountain range and obstacle course by turns, brilliantly colored and dangerous and exhilarating. The city he has erected in The Waterworks is in most regards the Manhattan of 1871, the oyster of the Tweed Ring, still fat from war profits but possibly hollow within, lurching its way into the modern era.
You may think it stands to your New York City today as some panoramic negative print, inverted in its lights and shadows…its seasons turned around…a companion city of the other side.
This is the narrator speaking from somewhere just the other side of the century’s turn, recalling in old age events he witnessed in his early middle years. The contrast he sees between his earlier and his later city is of course nothing compared with the city of the reader’s present—or is it that 1871 is more like the present? The youth of 1871 are “a wary generation, without illusions…revolutionaries of a sort…though perhaps too vulnerable ever to accomplish anything.” They make “little social enclaves of irony,” wear bits of Civil War uniforms, are “of that postwar generation for whom the materials of the war were ironic objects of art or fashion.” Perhaps this is not so much the early modern city as the pre-postmodern city, in which the nascent industries are those of self-consciousness and artifice.
The germ of The Waterworks would seem to be an enigmatic sketch of the same title that appeared in Doctorow’s 1984 collection Lives of the Poets, which here appears as a flashback. At the Croton Holding Reservoir, the massive Egyptian-styled structure that stood on the present site of the Public Library, at Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second Street, a boy falls in the water and apparently drowns. As a crowd looks on, a bearded man rushes up, pulls the boy out of the water by his feet, wraps him in his coat, rushes downstairs and into a waiting carriage, which speeds away. Everyone has assumed the man to be a relative or a doctor rescuing the boy, until the terrified mother appears. It seems the man had come from nowhere and had returned there bearing the boy, for unknown reasons. In its sketch form the anecdote is unexplained and stands alone, with the fathomless clarity of a vision or a dream. In the novel it functions as a harbinger of unsavory revelations to come.
Its witness is a newspaper editor, McIlvaine. He conforms to a classic type of nineteenth-century narrator, fortuitously present for all the major events of the novel, but whose function within it is largely restricted to witness, with perhaps a sideline in introducing the other characters to one another. He is a bachelor, saturnine …
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