Despite ghostly trappings, a mystery plot, and a genius villain reminiscent of both Professor Moriarty and Captain Nemo, The Waterworks is no featherweight summer thriller. As he did in Ragtime, and in his 1930s triptych (Loon Lake, World’s Fair, Billy Bathgate), E.L. Doctorow once again uses the American past — this time the ”brilliant heart-quaking civilization” of the post-Civil War years — to illuminate the present. But the novel is so much fun to read that you don’t realize till after you’ve finished it that you’ve just been lectured, and rather sternly, about some glaring flaws in our national character.
This time, the Doctorow Way-Back Machine lands us in 1871, when the population of New York City is scarcely one million. The Brooklyn Bridge is a skeletal work-in-progress, Central Park is ”all mud holes and ditches,” and ”Boss” Tweed still rules. Although the epoch described here is the same one skewered in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, this Manhattan, with its stale-beer dives and newsboy shelters, its chaotic streets, menacing alleys, and airless boardinghouses, seems another place entirely, almost a parallel universe. Wharton’s decorous New Yorkers, barricaded inside their Fifth Avenue mansions, probably never glimpsed Doctorow’s ”expanding, pulsating city pumping its energies outward furiously in every direction.” Too bad for them.
A freelance writer (whose specialty is scathing book reviews) staggers one rainy afternoon into the New York Telegram, claiming that he has just seen his father riding up Broadway in a white omnibus. What makes young Martin Pemberton’s report so astounding is that the old man has been dead for a year. Although Martin may be convinced of his father’s resurrection, McIlvaine, the Telegram editor who serves as the novel’s narrator and troubled conscience, is not. The vision, he suspects, is psychological, conjured by the young man’s deep hatred for Augustus Pemberton, a Gilded Age millionaire who built his fortune in the slave trade — and disinherited Martin for daring to criticize his morals.
But when Martin vanishes from the face of the earth days later, McIlvaine reconsiders his skepticism. Is it possible that old Pemberton might have faked his own death? But why? And if the villainous slaver is not buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, who is in his place? And what happened to Martin? Enlisting the aid of Edmund Donne — one of the few incorruptible officers of the municipal police — McIlvaine sets off on a manhunt.
Doctorow’s pastiche of 19th-century digressive storytelling, with all of its old-fashioned rhetorical tics, is flawless. Sprinkling his sentences with ellipses and dramatic dashes, jumping suddenly ahead in the story’s chronology, inserting brief philosophic essays and excerpts from a Sunday sermon, he violates nearly every modern narrative convention, and gets away with it.
Here is a tale prepared with the same sort of crazy, over-the-top ingredients so dear to the heart of Edgar Allan Poe — kidnapped orphans and swindled women, stolen millions, a midnight exhumation, a secret laboratory, and a filthy dungeon cell where someone ”scraggly-bearded, weak-eyed and blinking” is left to starve. And there’s even — well, of course! — a master criminal: Dr. Wrede Sartorius, dispenser of ”emollients, and powders, and fluid injections,” who promises immortality — to anyone who can pay his price. How gothic can you get!
But in its exploration of the ”limbo of science and money” and particularly in its depiction of the malevolent Dr. Sartorius, The Waterworks is finally a sober peek into the 20th century, a novel that tries to locate (and does just that) the precise historical moment when infatuation with the ”pure scientific temperament” took hold of our national psyche, and for good or ill — but mostly for ill — wouldn’t let go again. A