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Novelist as a small boy. Doctorow goes to the fair

By Roderick Nordell / December 6, 1985

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 . . . .''

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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.