Doctorow's Nightmarish, 19th-Century Metropolis

IF one were to design a model or prototype of the Serious American Writer, it would probably bear an uncanny resemblance to E.L. Doctorow: winner of prestigious prizes, predictably to the left in politics, comfortably ensconced in the anti-establishment establishment, first as an influential editor, then as a still more influential author with all the subsidiary academic honors and appointments.

Still sporting a sort of retro-beatnik beard, professorial-casual sweater, slacks, and rough-hewn footwear on the jacket photo of his 1993 essay collection, ``Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution,'' Doctorow even looks like a writer.

His novels are accessible enough to achieve bestseller status, yet inventive, varied, and experimental enough to demonstrate that he's not just another old-fashioned realist. Although he is a ``committed'' social critic, tackling material like the Rosenberg spy case in his powerful early novel ``The Book of Daniel,'' there can be no doubt that this is also a committed artist.

Like many of his previous books - ``Ragtime,'' ``Loon Lake,'' ``World's Fair,'' ``Billy Bathgate'' - Doctorow's latest novel, ``The Waterworks,'' is an instantly arresting, vivid re-animation of the American past that does not quite succeed in satisfying the expectations it arouses. There's less here than meets the eye - and the eye is likely to be dazzled by the sheer painterly flair of the writing.

The story takes place in post-Civil War New York, the city of boundless, sometimes frightening energy, a dynamo that seems to have taken on a life of its own, expanding northward into the wilds beyond 72nd Street.

``Here was a street set with paving stones that stopped at the edge of a pasture, there was a scaffolded half-risen apartment house through whose unframed windows you saw the sky ... or a Beaux Arts mansion going up alongside a cluster of shanties with a pig and goats rooting about.... Steam cranes stood in fields of grass and shrub. Somehow there were never any workers to be seen ... as if, with a mind of its own, the city was building itself.''

The city's famous waterworks system, legacy of a nobler era, has been in place since 1842, bringing the vital liquid from far upstate to the (now defunct) Croton Reservoir. The tallest structures in the city, however, are its fire towers: ``We had fires all the time, we burned as a matter of habit.... At night the flaming stacks of the foundries along the river cast torchlight like seed over the old wharves and packing sheds. Cinderous locomotives rode right down the streets.... The cookstoves in our homes burned coal, and on a winter morning without wind, black plumes rose from the chimneys in orderly rows, like the shimmering citizens of a necropolis.''

Our narrator and guide is a thoughtful newspaper editor named McIlvaine, who has few illusions about the greed and crass stupidity infesting his city in the year 1871, when the story begins. Addressing the modern reader, he warns against false nostalgia: ``[Y]ou look back on Boss Tweed with affection, as a wonderful fraud, a legendary scoundrel of old New York. But what he accomplished was murderous.... Can you understand his enormous power, the fear he inspired? Can you imagine what it is like to live in a city of thieves...?''

The story McIlvaine has to tell us unfolds at the same time as the exposure and collapse of the infamous Tweed ring. It, too, is a tale of greed, cold corruption, and monstrous exploitation. More specifically, it is a kind of horror story about fathers destroying their sons, old age preying on youth, the rich prospering at the expense of an underclass widely regarded as disposable.

McIlvaine employs an idealistic, sensitive young freelance writer, Martin Pemberton, the impecunious son of a corrupt and evil tycoon who made his fortune in the slave trade and in selling inferior goods to the Union Army.

The late Augustus Pemberton disowned his son when the latter confronted him with evidence of his misdeeds. One rainy morning, Martin thinks he has seen his presumably deceased father alive and well, riding on a white omnibus in the middle of Broadway. McIlvaine at first doesn't know what to believe.

Before long, Martin himself disappears, and McIlvaine teams up with Edmund Donne, one of the few honest policemen on a graft-riddled force, to find out what has happened.

With the help of Martin's loyal fiancee, Emily Tisdale, his handsome stepmother, Sarah Pemberton, and his artist crony Harry Wheelwright, policeman and editor find themselves on the trail of a mysterious Dr. Sartorius, who offers dying, elderly men of wealth the prospect of prolonged life.

The bizarre enterprise they eventually uncover serves as a metaphor for the evil that permeates the city. To read ``The Waterworks'' is to find oneself immersed in a strangely dreamlike -

or nightmarish - world that is also the very real world of a thriving metropolis.

The matter-of-fact miracles of ``modern'' 19th-century technology - telegraphs, engines, reservoirs, pumping stations - recover an aura of the miraculous. Everyday objects and incidents seem weighted with significance. Against the background of this real-yet-symbolic cityscape, McIlvaine's search for Martin Pemberton is not only suspenseful, but disturbing.

Why exactly one comes away from this spellbinding novel with a sense of mild disappointment is hard to explain. After so much is said and done, one has learned little more about avarice, corruption, and the amorality of science and technology than one was already led to suspect at the outset.

Intellectually, the story does not really develop much beyond its first premises. Reaching the end is a little like waking up from a fascinating dream, thick with atmosphere and affect, only to discover that what seemed profoundly meaningful to the sleeper looks rather more commonplace in the light of day.

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