The Waterworks, by E.L. Doctorow
I picked this one up on a whim after having LOVED Ragtime, a novel by the same author set in the first decades of the twentieth century in New York City and featuring real-life characters like Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, and J.P. Morgan. While The Waterworks isn’t as littered with famous figure cameos, doesn’t have the same comedic undertone, and takes place in the late eighteen-hundreds, Doctorow’s detailed historic rendering of the city was just as evocative and satisfying as in Ragtime. He really seems to know the city up and down, from the lowest rat-infested layer of abandoned underground tunnels to the very tippy-top of the Empire State building, and horizontally through centuries’ worth of time, too. All the gritty details of life in late nineteenth century New York City–the festering odors of life in the tenements, the outright corruption of the Tweed Ring, and the haughty aloofness of the aristocrats–are all brought vividly to life here.
It was too bad, then, that the rest of the book just wasn’t very good. It’s a detective story narrated by Mr. McIlvaine, the owner of a newspaper, who becomes concerned when his favorite, obdurate young freelance journalist, Martin, stops showing up for assignments. He starts digging around on his own and, in talking with Martin’s friends and family, finds that Martin had been acting in an increasingly strange manner following the death of his powerfully influential father Augustus Pemberton a few years earlier. Recently, it seems, Martin had been convinced that his father was still alive, and that he’d seen him in a passing omnibus one wintry night. What follows is the careful unveiling of a sinister and widespread conspiracy. The first major clue is a child’s skeleton found curled up in the otherwise empty dug-up coffin of Augustus Pemberton.
I was really into the first few chapters of the book, but it didn’t take long to figure out, at least roughly, what was behind the mysterious re-appearance of Augustus Pemberton. The resolution of the mystery was both predictable and entirely far-fetched; a bad two things to be at once. It was a pretty ridiculous ending, actually, and there wasn’t enough encouragement throughout the text to warrant such a suspension of reason. And there wasn’t a twist. Given the very direct, linear nature of the mystery’s revelations, I was kind of expecting one, so that was kind of a let down on top of what was already a too-obvious commentary on the fragile existence of a wholly unequal society cannibalizing itself in pursuit of never-ending progress. If The Waterworks was a movie, it might make for an okay late-night rainy mid-week viewing, but it’s not.
Just stick with Ragtime.