Novelist as a small boy. Doctorow goes to the fair
World's Fair, by E. L. Doctorow. New York: Random House. 288 pp. $17.95. I hope the reason I find E. L. Doctorow's new book so elating is not just that it is about me. There I am, narrator Edgar's older brother, building model airplanes out of balsa strips, working on Saturdays in Dad's store, playing in a teen-age dance band, studying radio for service in World War II. But who didn't? That's the feeling from this novel in the form of a boyhood memoir. Maybe I was a child in the Midwest, waiting for the Douglas County Fair, and the Altschulers were in the Bronx, waiting for the World's Fair that gives this book its title. But Doctorow calls up more than any one midway, big or small, when he takes his epigraph from Wordsworth among the excitements of London: ``A raree-show is here,/With children gathered round . . . .''
This extravaganza, ladies and gentlemen, with its heights of imagination, reaches of humanity, and sideshows of sleaze, is as much world as it is world's fair. Doctorow appropriates every clich'e of pre-World War II nostalgia and freshens it through the intellect and senses of a boy to whom daily life is hardly less a wonder than the grand exposition at Flushing Meadow. Artifacts of an age
Perhaps Doctorow's affection for his scene occasionally lapses into romanticizing its vulgarities. But the tremors of Nazism and of America's own unsolved problems are here, and violence threatens Edgar himself, putting a shadowed edge on the benign artifacts of an age: a Good Humor ice cream stick sailed in the gutter, Uncle Phil's De Soto taxi, the Little Blue Book on ventriloquism, movie serials featuring comic book heroes and inviting severe judgment on the success of their representation. The ironi es of news-cum-entertainment in later mass media flicker in such moments as when the family misses the radio broadcast describing a human calamity: ``it was the hour for The Answer Man and I Love a Mystery.''
For all the common experience brought alive here -- in contrast with the bizarre meshing of fact and fantasy in some previous Doctorow books -- the central character is his own man, er, boy. He belongs to fiction's basic Jewish ``Death of a Salesman'' family -- strong mother, hardworking but ineffectual father, two sons. But there are many departures, including the fact that the name Edgar is the same as the author's. And the events of the narrative -- business ups and downs, in-law tensions, Edg ar's stay in a hospital, his friendship with the daughter of a woman of dubious repute -- are less important than how he responds to them:
``I had not yet in my brief life been thought of as a reliable witness to anything.''
``It is a heartening knowledge that comes sooner or later to all children that they can achieve parity.'' Intimations of Wordsworth
The result might be said to trace the stirrings of a future writer's mind, as Wordsworth examined his in ``The Prelude; Or, Growth of a Poet's Mind,'' the work Doctorow chooses his epigraph from. He almost invites a pedantic footnote -- that Wordsworth altered his poem to fit his later beliefs, with the original version turning up only in the next century. In the playful spirit of Edgar's father, a reader might ask if the published ``World's Fair'' is the original version of Edgar's story.
Certainly one of its delights is the recall of youthful episodes with such adult insight as to prompt at least passing questions of whether young Edgar would have recognized himself. There is something marvelous about his idolizing the relative humaneness of animal trapper Frank Buck -- ``he lived the life I dreamed for myself, adventurous yet with ethical controls.'' But is that how a nine-year-old would frame it to himself? How about the ``double personality engendered by school: the good attentive bo y in class, the raucous, unsprung Dionysian in the schoolyard at recess''? Such worries about verisimilitude fade as Doctorow's mix of memory, idiom, and invention takes effect.
Sometimes Edgar's recollections receive the perspective of interludes addressed to him by his mother or other family members. And sometimes a passage of mature eloquence rises, almost like the fair's symbolic Trylon, from childlike surroundings -- as when Edgar sees that a vast airship, the doomed Hindenburg, is flying over nearby housetops. It floated toward him ``and kept coming and kept coming.''
The flow of language could recall ``The Prelude'' again, when the poet in his moving boat feels followed by a mountain peak that, ``with purpose of its own/And measured motion like a living thing,/Strode after me.'' Not to force any other comparisons, Edgar's climactic day at the fair, with its Futurama, is like a high-tech refraction of Wordsworth's glory in the ``mechanic artist's'' creations of his youth, ``those sights that ape/The absolute presence of reality.''
Doctorow is writing prose, of course, but categories break down with lines like the one about Edgar's father: ``Life declared itself in him.'' This is the man who, despite his own failings, gave his sons a sense of joy in doing things, going places, keeping up with the news, caring about injustices, telling jokes. A sense of doing things properly comes from Edgar's mother, whose ``one indulgence was to play the piano, which she did with authority, as she did everything.''
In Doctorow's ``Loon Lake'' a man virtually makes himself the son of a tyrant in a strange gesture of revenge and redemption. Here a son has the gentle father he can enjoy. And here is a book ratifying the protean skills of its author. An author who can go from bravura, innovative books like ``Loon Lake'' and the earlier ``Ragtime'' to the deceivingly simple childhood reverie of ``World's Fair'': ``In my own consciousness I was not a child.'' Double dare
As a sophisticate's novelist, Doctorow must be as daring now as Edgar was then when he secretly entered an essay contest on the theme of the Typical American Boy. By the time I read his essay I knew the origin of every sentence; by the time his parents read it, I was ready to weep and celebrate with them:
``The typical American Boy is not fearful of Dangers. He should be able to go out into the country and drink raw milk. Likewise, he should traverse the hills and valleys of the city. If he is Jewish, he should say so. If he is anything he should say what it is when challenged. He roots for his home team in football and baseball but also plays sports himself. He reads all the time. It's all right for him to like comic books so long as he knows they are junk. Also, radio programs and movies may be enjoyed
but not at the expense of important things. For example he should always hate Hitler. In music he appreciates both swing and symphony. In women he appreciates them all. He does not waste time daydreaming when he is doing his homework. He is kind. He cooperates with his parents. He knows the value of a dollar. He looks death in the face.''
Roderick Nordell is editor of The Home Forum.