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 sweet clear cold mountain lake. He pulls himself up on the float and stands panting in the sun, his glistening white young body inhaling the light, the sun healing my scars my cracked bones my lacerated soul.

The passage aptly conveys Joe’s calculation, his ability to objectify himself.

Joe’s story alternates with the recollections and poems of Penfield, which Penfield has left him at his death. Penfield’s memories are presented in the third person:

Warren felt the rough hand of the armed guard on his neck and then the coolness of the night air as he flew from the top of the rail-car step to the graveled ground. His knee was embedded with bits of stone as the miners had been peppered with coal fragments, so he understood that feeling. To understand what it meant to be buried alive in a mountain he sat later with his eyes closed in the night and his hands over his ears and he held his breath as long as he could.

Penfield’s poems, also printed here, are narrative and descriptive; it is these writings which articulate the central moral preoccupations of the book—capitalism and its metaphorical correlatives: nature, personal space, and sex. Sometimes the voices of Penfield and Joe, sharing an analogical matrix of the language of economics, tend to merge and to become Doctorow: “The rescue work was commanded from the private railroad car, a property like the mine and like the miners…” (Warren). “Everything in this room, unlit and still, seemed more awesome than from the distance of the night, for it was quite clearly owned. That was the main property of the entire car, not that it was handsome or luxurious but that it was owned” (Joe).

Like Ragtime, Loon Lake concerns itself with capitalism in general and with the history of union struggle in the early part of this century. Most modern writing has tended to focus on private experience, and if an occasional didactic impulse comes on him, the writer sets up a lot of real-looking shrubs in which to hide it, in hopes that it will appear to be an aspect of the natural world. We call these realistic novels. Doctorow, impatient with ambiguity, sets up ideas like little black and white figures on top of a wedding cake, all decorated with the icing sugar of art—Warren’s little poems, for example, restfully prosaic though they may be:


He talked about the unrest in the country
and the peculiar mood of the workers
and he solicited the gangsters’ views over brandy
on the likelihood of revolution.

The result is a special and characteristic concoction, not realistic and not self-consciously surreal but rather like an epic or a morality play, in which the poet celebrates the good, deplores the bad, and develops in a musical way the meaningful themes of his society as he sees it.

The sexual relationships in Loon Lake, therefore, are developed in sadistic and economic terms, as is usual in Doctorow’s work. (Is it the sadism he means, in an interview, when he says that this “is the fullest exploration I’ve made of love in America”? Or is it the cash nexus?) Anyway, all the sexual relationships involve money, and the ultimate metaphor for private enterprise is the carnival, that time-honored image of society, where the rubes line up every night after the show to fuck the freak show fat lady, and tickets are sold for a final, disgusting orgy as she dies. Joe runs off with the entrepreneur’s wife Magda (“this thieving crone bitch”) who’s got the profits. “At one point the coins sticking to the wet ass, the wet belly, I invented a use of Magda Hearn so unendurable to her that with the same cry that must have come from her the day she fell twisting from the trapeze, she flung herself off the bed.” When Magda drops into exhausted sleep, Joe takes the orgy money and scatters it to the wind; but he’s not usually so quixotic.

Nature itself is an aspect of social injustice. Joe, in the last pages of the book, plunges into the icy waters of Loon Lake and comes up smiling. Nature is ice is capitalism. Loon Lake is “a cold black lake,” owned, loons preying on fish there, the shores haunted by the ghosts of dying Indians. It is a reflex of capitalist society and a form of selfish luxury. To the urban romantic, like Doctorow, the romantic poet of nature is a poseur. In the Adirondacks “one summer after the May flies painters and poets arrived / who paid money to sit in guide boats and to stand momentously / above the gorges of rushing streams. / The artists and poets patrons seeing and hearing their reports bought vast tracts of the Adirondacks very cheaply and began to build elaborate camps there thus inventing / the wilderness as luxury” (writes Warren). Elsewhere, Joe “understands what wealth is, the desire for isolation.”

But nature, which seems to an urban sensibility emblematic of spiritual desolation and selfishness, seems to the product of rural culture emblematic of goodness. Because we are not universally urban, and because the idea of nature as good (and of society as vain, bad, crowded, indifferent, etc.) is basic to a strain of Western literature since Virgil, the artist must struggle uphill in his sack. Ragtime, comic and working with simpler material, risked less and succeeded, but one could complain of the stately and ambitious Loon Lake that by attempting to look more broadly at American history, it seems the more constrained by an ideology which explains or convokes the experience of only some Americans, without having the exemplary power of an ambiguous fictional world to expand the experience of others.

The effect of this fiction to some extent depends, then, on one’s assent to the validity and explanatory power of its underlying myth of American capitalism. There are many accounts of creation. The view of American history each of us has is probably, as Frances Fitzgerald has suggested, strongly conditioned by our third-grade textbooks—in some communities they’re still fighting the Civil War, or celebrating the romance of religious freedom. Doctorow is particularly compelled by the stories of union brotherhood and by how poor immigrants, especially Jewish immigrants, upon arriving in America around the turn of the century were routinely mistreated, given names they didn’t like, and made to live in unspeakable conditions forced on them by an exploitative ruling class.

We have other stories too. A recent French TV documentary reconstructed the French view of America from footage on America in French TV film files: almost entirely fat sheriffs wearing sunglasses handling Dobermans which they are about to release on blacks. Blacks rioting, bleeding New Yorkers being taken to emergency rooms, and middle Americans wearing foolish costumes at a variety of assemblies—political, Klan, religious, or self-improvement groups. America lends itself to simplification and caricature, but each of our stories is differently affecting. For each of us there are things that prompt a special swell of indignation or an inexplicable tear: Appomattox, Chicago, Mother Machree.


Like any other idealistic and perceptive person, Doctorow has a complaint about history, that it contained brutality and villainy. The indignation which breaks through the lyricism or funny bits in all his work suggests despair about human nature itself (and why not?), but also a demand for some sort of apology, and it is here that a question arises of how the tone interferes at times with the narrative. Unless you are descended from an Ellis Island customs official or a railroad baron you may find yourself wanting to assure the writer that all this wasn’t your fault, or that history is just history, and that there is misery enough in the actual world, without it being retroactive. The twentieth-century American working class was not Earth’s most pitiable group. But no doubt Doctorow pays America a kind of compliment by believing we could have been better.

He is apparently dismayed by our plurality of incongruous myths, the differences in American social conditioning which exaggerate the divisions in our national life and prevent political communion. This is the preoccupation of Penfield, in Loon Lake, who recalls being in Seattle during the great general strike of 1919, talking to his landlady, a woman “proud to be free and beholden to no one.” He is sorry that she can’t understand “the incredible tangible emotion of solidarity key word no abstract idealization but an actual feeling” about collective effort and the labor movement and cooperation (instead of competition as exemplified by Bennet and by Joe, who gets to the Top by crime, by using the system, and by literally and figuratively screwing everybody). He’s right, she can’t feel it. If we are, as in the currently fashionable view, still connected to our roots, this “big woman large jaw blue eyes taller” (than Penfield) was constrained by the love of solitude her ancestors felt herding their reindeer in some vast landscape. The landlady points out that the Huns had warm feelings of group solidarity. “Nobody knows what human nature is in the raw it’s never been seen on this earth,” Warren has to admit. Defeated by the fear that even the triumph of labor would not bring Utopia, he goes off to Japan and studies Zen, becomes a parody of the self-involved dropout American artist. Penfield is Doctorow’s wittiest invention here.

Penfield’s coal miner father had wanted him to work in the mines and to bear witness to the human suffering there. Penfield is punished for his failure of social commitment by alcoholism and violent death, twin destinies of American writers of the period. In Loon Lake as in Ragtime, punishments and rewards are appointed not by considerations of realism and not by fictional conventions of retributive justice but by Doctorow’s personal scheme. In Ragtime, the inoffensive Father, a WASP flag manufacturer, is given sexual inadequacy, diffidence, an inability to converse, long self-exile in the frozen arctic, where parts of him become frostbitten, and finally death by drowning in an icy sea—images of ice and frigidity inundating him as they are apt to do to other non-Jewish or non-union characters. (It is notable that enthusiastic sexuality, in all the works, is a property only of those committed to the class struggle.)

Tateh is the wickedest character in Ragtime, risking Doctorow’s vengeance by pointing “his life along the lines of flow of American energy. Workers could strike and die but in the streets of cities an entrepreneur could cook sweet potatoes in a bucket of hot coals and sell them for a penny or two.” But Tateh has paid his dues by being a Jewish immigrant and an artist to boot, and is rewarded by happiness, a remunerative gimmick, and the hand of Mother. Joe, in the present work, having paid his dues, is rewarded by wealth, though not, we are to assume, happiness.

It’s a danger, with flat characters (in Forster’s sense), that if, like broken parts of a machine, one or another doesn’t work, the fiction may come to a halt. In Ragtime, where their flatness is part of the design, the audience knows, as at a morality play, the stereotypes: union people are good, cops are bad, Wasps are neglectful of their children, Jews are sexy, blacks are flamboyant, the rich are kinky, and so on—there’s a stereotype to offend everybody, and that’s the fun. The villains and heroes, equally charming, dash on and off stage in bright costumes, dramatizing the simpler dichotomies of American history.

In Loon Lake, the characters are rounded by the process of speaking for themselves. It’s hard to be flat in the first person. None has the convincing poignancy of the brilliant characterization of Daniel in The Book of Daniel, but because Doctorow can only write wonderfully, even the bad Joe endears himself by his felicitous phrases, by his complexity, and by the splendid intelligence his author can’t help giving him. Still the exegetical function of the characters does somehow impede the action: the real drama lies behind the action, as in Pilgrim’s Progress—lies in the great fable (or in this case the great program) being played on the writer’s “secret boards,” in Emerson’s phrase, to be reconstructed by the audience in part from the typology and in part from the rhetoric itself.

Philosophy is hard to illustrate, but William James devised as frontispiece to one of his father’s many works on Swedenborg a picture of a man beating a dead horse. The reader may become restive, even combative, slyly imagining, under the stern gaze of the master, alternative scenarios involving cheery cops, bad union men, spontaneous, affectionate Episcopalians. Doctrine begets revisionists. The author’s impatience with the moral confusion of American orthodoxy may tap a vestigial patriotic vein and release a trickle of nostalgia for our villains, tycoons like Bennett, for example, who, although wicked, were at least effective, and whom, now that we fear ourselves to be a nation of bunglers, we may remember, pace Doctorow, with a certain wistful admiration.

But Doctorow’s faith in his version of American history, and his willingness to run the large artistic risks involved in asserting it, make him one of the bravest and most interesting of modern American novelists, flying in the face of the self-indulgent fashion for confession to write about something, reviving the discredited function of artist as judge, and working to find the forms for judgment. It is interesting to notice that a strong ideology often, in literature, has had the paradoxical effect of stimulating formal experiments (in Whitman and Dos Passos, for instance), but also, in this respect, one senses in Loon Lake Doctorow’s need to interest himself.

The risk is of a retreat into manner. One can picture the rival counselors who sit on his shoulders, whispering in his ears, vying for his attention—one a kindly Marxist rabbi, the other an elegant, suavely smiling rascal, maybe somebody like Oscar Wilde. Each is nearly satisfied with Loon Lake, but one wishes they would go away together and leave Doctorow alone.

This Issue

November 6, 1980