A New Yorker, E. L. Doctorow has explored aspects of his city at the turn of the century in Ragtime (1975), during the Depression era of gangster Dutch Schultz in Billy Bathgate (1989), and during the Cold War in The Book of Daniel (1971). In The Waterworks, he takes readers back to 1871, when the corruptions of the Grant administration were notorious and Boss Tweed ran the New York political machine, amassing a fortune like a bloated spider gorged on its prey. At first, The Waterworks seems like a realistic historical novel, as Doctorow introduces readers to the graft and greed behind the façade of New York and to the unsavory world of poverty, of grimy little girls selling flowers or selling themselves in brothels, of newsboys trying to survive by brutal brawling for street corners—newsboys who will never succeed like those of Horatio Alger, Jr.’s fictions. The hard world of 1871 was justified by Calvinists as fulfilling the aim of God, by Social Darwinians as nature’s design. Gradually, however, the novel evolves from historical reconstruction into a science-fiction horror story.
The narrator is McIlvaine (readers never learn his first name), city editor of The Telegram, a leading New York newspaper, who reflects back on the bizarre and sinister events of the narrative from the perspective of his old age. He begins by introducing one of his freelance writers, Martin Pemberton, a brilliant author of iconoclastic reviews. One day Martin astounds his employer with the story of how he was walking down Broadway on a rainy morning when he passed a horse-drawn white omnibus whose passengers were all ancient men in black; one of them was his father, who had been pronounced dead and buried months earlier. It turns out that Martin has sighted his father several times and has tried to track him down to see what mystery has resurrected him. During the course of his investigation, he too disappears, after which McIlvaine becomes so obsessed with the case that he hires a detective to solve it. Eventually, McIlvaine loses his job, as the clues lead to the corruption of the city manipulated by Boss Tweed. As the investigation continues, readers see in vivid detail the sights and sounds of New York shortly after the Civil War, during the early days of the gaslight era, the rapid growth of the Industrial Revolution, the high-speed printing presses, the opulent lifestyles of the incredibly wealthy, and the squalid lives of the working poor who made their leisured lives possible and of Civil War amputees reduced to beggary.
During his investigation, McIlvaine goes to the Reverend Charles Grimshaw, an Episcopal high church clergyman who is pastor to the Pembertons. Grimshaw is a former abolitionist and an idealist who shies away from the all-too-true vision of evil that street-corner preachers shout in their millenarian visions. Grimshaw’s world is that of the sheltered rich, and he is not much help except in assisting McIlvaine to see Emily Tisdale, Martin’s fiancée, who relates to him her lost lover’s account of yet another mysterious sighting of his dead father. Augustus Pemberton turns out to have been an unscrupulous scoundrel of a financier whose illicit activities even embraced the slave trade. Upon his death, his immense fortune seems to have evaporated mysteriously, so that his widow and young son lost their mansion, became impoverished, and had to throw themselves upon the hospitality of a modestly provided-for relative.
The more deeply McIlvaine gets involved in the case, the more realism segues into surrealism, as his narrative becomes increasingly subjective and his prose increasingly metaphorical. By his own account, McIlvaine is not necessarily a reliable narrator. Recalling the events from his old age, he admits, “Remembrances take on a luminosity from their repetition in your mind year after year . . . so that what you remember as having happened and what truly did happen are no less and no more than . . . visions.” In them, his recollection of New York City is like a “negative print, inverted in its lights and shadows . . . its seasons turned around . . . a companion city of the other side.” He confesses, “It is my own mind’s experiences that I report, a true deposition of the events, and the statements, claims, protestations, and prayers of the souls...
(The entire section is 1783 words.)