(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In many ways, E. L. Doctorow’s Loon Lake is a Bildungsroman, a book about a young person’s adventures in moving from childhood to adulthood. After his 1918 birth in Paterson, New Jersey, the protagonist, Joseph Korzeniowski, becomes a young hoodlum alienated from his parents. He moves to New York City, where he becomes a grocery boy, but after hearing about idyllic life in California he hops on a freight train with other impoverished youths and heads west. He does not go far before he leaps from the train and finds employment at a broken-down carnival that features freaks. At the end of the summer, he discovers that Sim Hearne, the carnival’s owner, allows paying customers to gang rape Fanny, the fat woman, before she dies. Joe leaves the carnival with Hearne’s wife and a bankroll, but he throws the money away, leaves Hearne’s wife, and begins a long trek through the upstate New York woods.

As he walks through the woods, he sees a naked woman in a private railroad car. He follows the railroad tracks to the lavish Loon Lake estate of F. W. Bennett and is attacked by a pack of wild dogs. Although he escapes, he is seriously mauled. He recovers at Bennett’s estate, where he presumptuously signs the guest book as “Joe of Paterson,” the first of many identity passages in the novel. While an employee of Bennett, he meets Warren Penfield, a poet who had earlier come to Loon Lake and been similarly attacked by wild dogs. A deep bond develops between Penfield and Joe, who also is attracted to Cara Lukacs, whom gangster Tommy Crapo has given to Bennett. Both Penfield and Joe love Clara, but since Penfield knows he...

(The entire section is 676 words.)