The Waterworks

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

THE WATERWORKS is Martin Pemberton’s story, told by his employer, a newspaper editor named McIlvaine. The novel is also the story of New York City of the 1870’s. Doctorow skillfully weaves historical fact and speculation into his tale, incorporating Boss Tweed and his political manipulations into the primary plot.

As the novel opens, Pemberton claims to have seen his father, a former slave runner and corrupt businessman whom Pemberton believed to have died several years previously. McIlvaine, who employs Pemberton as a freelance journalist, accepts the claim with some suspicion, as Pemberton is prone to exaggeration and metaphor. After the young freelancer disappears, however, McIlvaine sets out after him. He soon discovers that Pemberton’s claim to have seen a dead man riding through the streets of New York may have had a basis in fact.

McIlvaine traces Pemberton through Pemberton’s family and friends, in the process discovering his employee’s private life. Doctorow uses this process of discovery skillfully to reveal aspects of the everyday lives of New Yorkers of the period and to present the issues of the day. Foremost among those are the activities of Boss Tweed.

McIlvaine eventually traces Pemberton to an orphanage controlled by Tweed. In the process of reconciling the mysterious reappearance of Pemberton’s father, he uncovers secret research funded by various wealthy men, including Tweed.

The plot line...

(The entire section is 459 words.)