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Summary

Summary

"An elegant page-turner of nineteenth-century detective fiction." --The Washington Post Book World One rainy morning in 1871 in lower Manhattan, Martin Pemberton a freelance writer, sees in a passing stagecoach several elderly men, one of whom he recognizes as his supposedly dead and buried father. While trying to unravel the mystery, Pemberton disappears, sending McIlvaine, his employer, the editor of an evening paper, in pursuit of the truth behind his freelancer's fate. Layer by layer, McIlvaine reveals a modern metropolis surging with primordial urges and sins, where the Tweed Ring operates the city for its own profit and a conspicuously self-satisfied nouveau-riche ignores the poverty and squalor that surrounds them. In E. L. Doctorow's skilled hands, The Waterworks becomes, in the words ofThe New York Times, "a dark moral tale . . . an eloquently troubling evocation of our past." "Startling and spellbinding . . . The waters that lave the narrative all run to the great confluence, where the deepest issues of life and death are borne along on the swift, sure vessel of [Doctorow's] poetic imagination." --The New York Times Book Review "Hypnotic . . . a dazzling romp, an extraordinary read, given strength and grace by the telling, by the poetic voice and controlled cynical lyricism of its streetwise and world-weary narrator." --The Philadelphia Inquirer "A gem of a novel, intimate as chamber music . . . a thriller guaranteed to leave readers with residual chills and shudders." --Boston Sunday Herald "Enthralling . . . a story of debauchery and redemption that is spellbinding from first page to last." --Chicago Sun-Times "An immense, extraordinary achievement." --San Francisco Chronicle From the Trade Paperback edition.


Author Notes

E. L. (Edgar Lawrence) Doctorow was born on January 6, 1931, in the Bronx, New York. He received an A.B. in philosophy in 1952 from Kenyon College and did graduate work at Columbia University. He served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps from 1953-1955.

He began his career as a script reader for CBS Television and Columbia Pictures and as a senior editor for the New American Library. He was editor-in-chief for Dial Press from 1964 to 1969, where he also served as vice president and publisher in his last year on staff. It was at this time that he decided to write full time.

He wrote novels, short stories, essays, and a play. His debut novel, Welcome to Hard Times, was published in 1960 and was adapted into a film in 1967. His other works include, Loon Lake, The Waterworks, The March, Homer and Langley, and Andrew's Brain. He won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1986 for World's Fair and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1976 for Ragtime, which was adapted into a film in 1981 and a Broadway musical in 1998. Billy Bathgate received the PEN/Faulkner Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the William Dean Howells Medal in 1990. The Book of Daniel and Billy Bathgate were also adapted into films. He received the 2013 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters for his outstanding achievement in fiction writing. He died of complications from lung cancer on July 21, 2015 at the age of 84.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Doctorow's ninth novel is another variation on his favorite theme, New York City's delirious history, but it's an entirely different creature than its predecessors. Set in New York during the frenzied and cynical aftermath of the Civil War, this suspenseful narrative is told by an old, wry newspaper editor named McIlvaine. It all began with the disturbing, if not downright inconvenient, disappearance of McIlvaine's favorite freelance writer. Moody, young, and uncompromising, Martin could have been rich since his profiteering father amassed vast sums slave trading and selling shoddy goods to the Union army, but Martin objected to his father's venality and immorality and got himself disowned. His handsome young stepmother did no such thing, yet, when old Pemberton dies, she is left destitute: the family fortune is nowhere to be found. Just before Martin vanishes, he tells friends that he has seen his allegedly dead father riding around in a white coach. McIlvaine turns to the one police officer he trusts, an uncommon man of uncommon height and shrewdness. As they begin their investigation, we are reminded of the Holmes-Watson team, but as this astonishing and ghoulish story unfolds, we also detect echoes of tales about mad scientists, vampires, and the pursuit of eternal life. Curiously, New York City itself becomes the central character. An "unprecedented life form," it seethes with the hectic hustling of street urchins, thugs, and corrupt officials. Doctorow revels in dramatic descriptions of the rapidly mutating cityscape while he dramatizes life's brutal pragmatism and our capacity for sinister acts. Gothic and penetrating, rooted in Poe and Melville, and crisply written, this is a rare treat. ~--Donna Seaman


Publisher's Weekly Review

Each novel by Doctorow is an entirely different experience, a journey of the imagination into hitherto uncharted territory. The Waterworks , set in the corrupt but hideously exciting New York of the decade following the Civil War, is the strangest such journey yet. The narrator, an elderly newspaperman named McIlvaine, recalls the bizarre events surrounding the disappearance of one of his paper's best freelance writers in 1871. Martin Pemberton was the son of Augustus Pemberton, a brutal, cunning man who had made a fortune as a war profiteer, then died, leaving his family mysteriously penniless. Martin was convinced he had seen his father alive, in a coach in the company of other old men; then Martin vanished. McIlvaine interests the municipal police, in the person of odd, incorruptible Captain Edmund Donne, and together they ferret out a weird scheme in which aging millionaires have paid the brilliant, cold-blooded Dr. Sartorius to preserve their lives in a state of suspended animation. The tale has the brightly lit intensity and surreality of a dream, heightened by McIlvaine's halting, amazed narration; and such is the power of Doctorow's imagination that the very city itself, its burgeoning modernity, its huge machines, its febrile citizenry, seems to become a major actor in the drama. World's Fair and Billy Bathgate were both given a human dimension by their child's-eye point of view. Here Doctorow is taking a larger risk by placing the reader at a much greater distance from the events and subduing his contemporary sensibility in favor of a wonderfully convincing 19th-century angle of vision. It is as if Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James had somehow combined their incompatible geniuses to bring this profoundly haunting fable to life. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Library Journal Review

In the kind of historical fantasia we have come to expect from Doctorow, a young man in 1870s New York spots his supposedly deceased father on a horse-drawn omnibus and follows him into the depths of the city. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


School Library Journal Review

YA‘Newspaper editor McIlvaine investigates the disappearance of freelance journalist Martin Pemberton and uncovers a macabre scientific experiment that involves Pemberton's supposedly dead father and several other wealthy old men. The narrative's digressions contain the heart of the novel: Doctorow's presentation of New York in 1871 as impacted by the Industrial Revolution and the corruption of Boss Tweed's government. Although the book is not overly long, its complexity of diction will deter all but the most erudite YAs. Those who persevere will gain insights into journalism, post-Civil War society, and political corruption while considering the implications of medical experimentation, then and now.‘Arlene Bathgate, Chantilly High School, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

One       PEOPLE wouldn't take what Martin Pemberton said as literal truth, he was much too melodramatic or too tormented to speak plainly. Women were attracted to him for this--they imagined him as something of a poet, though he was if anything a critic, a critic of his life and times. So when he went around muttering that his father was still alive, those of us who heard him, and remembered his father, felt he was speaking of the persistence of evil in general.   In those days the Telegram relied heavily on freelances. I always had my eye out for a good freelance and I kept a clutch of them on call. Martin Pemberton was the best of the lot, though I would never tell him that. I treated him as I treated them all. I was derisive because it was expected of me, I was funny so that I could be quoted in the saloons, and I was reasonably fair because that is the way I am ... but I was also interested in the language and wanted all of them to write it for my approval ... which, if it came at all, came barbed.   Of course, none of this was particularly effective with Martin Pemberton. He was a moody, distracted young fellow, and it was clear his own mind was more company to him than people were. He had light gray eyes which spasmodically widened from the slightest stimulus. His eyebrows would arch and then contract to a frown, and he would seem for a moment to be looking not at the world but into it. He suffered an intensity of awareness--seeming to live at some level so beyond you that you felt your own self fading in his presence, you felt your hollowness or fraudulence as a person. Most freelances are nervous craven creatures, it is such a tenuous living after all, but this one was prideful, he knew how well he wrote, and never deferred to my opinion. That alone would have set him apart.   He was slight, with a well-boned, clean-shaven face and pale thinning hair. He strode about the city with a stiff-legged gait, like a man much taller. He would walk down Broadway with his Union greatcoat open, flowing behind him like a cape. Martin was of that postwar generation for whom the materials of the war were ironic objects of art or fashion. He and his friends made little social enclaves of irony. He once told me the war had not been between the Union and the Rebs but between two confederate states, and so a confederacy had to win. I am a man who will never be able to think of anyone but Abe Lincoln as president, so you can imagine how a remark like that stood with me. But I was intrigued by the worldview behind it. I was not myself exactly complacent about our modern industrial civilization.   Martin's best friend was an artist, a big, fleshy fellow named Harry Wheelwright. When not importuning dowagers for portrait commissions, Wheelwright drew mutilated veterans he picked up off the street ... with pointed attention to their disfigurement. I thought his drawings were the equivalent of Martin's tactless but informed reviews and cultural critiques. As for me, my newsman's cilia were up and waving. The soul of the city was always my subject, and it was a roiling soul, twisting and turning over on itself, forming and re-forming, gathering into itself and opening out again like blown cloud. These young men were a wary generation, without illusions ... revolutionaries of a sort ... though perhaps too vulnerable ever to accomplish anything. Martin's defiant subjection to his own life and times was manifest ... but you didn't know how long he could go on with it.   I did not usually care to know anything about the background of a freelance. But in this case I couldn't help knowing. Martin had come from wealth. His father was the late, notorious Augustus Pemberton, who had done enough to shame and mortify their line for generations to come, having made a fortune in the war supplying the Army of the North with boots that fell apart, blankets that dissolved in rain, tents that tore at the grommets, and uniform cloth that bled dye. Our name for this was "shoddy," used as a noun. But shoddy wasn't the worst of old Pemberton's sins. He had made an even bigger fortune running slavers. You would think the slave trade was exclusive to the southern ports, but Augustus ran it from New York--even after the war had begun, as late as 'sixty-two. He had some Portuguese as partners, the Portuguese being specialists in the trade. They sailed ships to Africa right here from Fulton Street, and sailed them back across the ocean to Cuba, where the cargo was sold to the sugar plantations. The ships were scuttled because the stench could not be got rid of. But the profits were so enormous they could buy another ship. And another after that.   So that was Martin's father. You can understand why a son would choose, like a penance, the deprived life of a freelance. Martin had known everything the old man had done and at a still young age had arranged to be disinherited--how I will explain presently. Here I will point out that to run slavers out of New York, Augustus Pemberton had to have the port wardens in his pocket. A slaver's belowdecks were carpentered to pack in as many human beings as possible, there was no head-room--nobody could board a slaver and not know what she was. So it was hardly a surprise that when Augustus Pemberton died after a long illness, in 1870, and was buried from St. James Episcopal, on Laight Street, the city's leading dignitaries showed up at the funeral, led by Boss Tweed himself, along with members of the Ring--the comptroller, the mayor--several judges, dozens of Wall Street thieves ... and that he was honored with major obituaries in every daily paper, including the Telegram. O my Manhattan! The great stone steles of the bridge to Brooklyn were rising on both shores of the river. Lighters, packets, and freighters sailed into port every hour of the day. The wharves groaned under the crates and barrels and bales of the world's goods. Standing on any corner I could swear I heard the telegraphy singing through the wires. Toward the end of the trading day on the Exchange the sound of the ticker tapes filled the air like crickets at twilight. We were in the post-war. Where you'll find mankind not shackled in history is Heaven, eventless Heaven.   I don't make any claims for myself as a seer of the future, but I remember what I sensed years before, when President Lincoln died. You will just have to trust that this, like everything I tell you, has a bearing on the story. They marched his catafalque up Broadway to the railroad depot and for weeks afterward remnants and tatters of the funeral muslin flapped from the windows along the parade route. Black dye stained the building fronts and blotted the awnings of the shops and restaurants. The city was unnaturally still. We weren't ourselves. The veterans who stood in front of A. T. Stewart's department store saw coins rain into their tin cups.   But I knew my city, and I waited for what had to come. After all, there were no soft voices. All speech was shouted, words flew like shot from our double-cylinder printing presses. I'd covered the riots when the price of flour went from seven to twenty dollars a barrel. I followed the armed bands of killers who fought with the army in the streets and torched the Colored Orphan Asylum after conscription was ordered. I'd seen gang riots and police riots and was there on Eighth Avenue when the Hibernians attacked the Orangemen on parade. I'm all for democracy but I'll tell you that I've lived through times in this town that have made me long for the stultifying peace of kings ... the equanimity that comes of bowing and scraping in the dazzling light of regal authority.   So I knew some regnant purpose was enshrouded in Mr. Lincoln's death, but what was it? Some soulless social resolve had to work itself out of his grave and rise again. But I didn't anticipate ... it would come through my young freelance, with his Union greatcoat lying on his shoulders heavy as sod, who stood in my office one rainy, wet afternoon and waited while I read his copy. I don't know why it always seemed to be raining when Martin came around. But this day ... this day he was a mess. Trouser legs muddied and torn, the gaunt face all scraped and bruised. The ink on his copy had run, and the pages were blotted with mud and a palm print of something that looked like blood lay across the top page. But it was another contemptuous review, brilliantly written, and too good for readers of the Telegram.   "Some poor devil took a year of his life to write this book," I said.   "And I gave up a day of my life to read it."   "We should say that in a sidebar. The intelligentsia of this great city will be grateful to you for saving it from another Pierce Graham novel."   "There is no intelligentsia in this city," said Martin Pemberton. "There are only ministers and newspaper publishers."   He came behind my desk to stare out the window. My office looked over Printing House Square. The rain streamed down the pane so that everything out there, the schools of black umbrellas, the horsecars, the plodding stages, seemed to be moving underwater. "If you want a favorable notice, why don't you give me something decent to read," Martin said. "Give me something for the lead essay. I'll show my appreciation."   "I can't believe that. The grandeur of your opinions stands in inverse ratio to the state of your wardrobe. Tell me what happened, Pemberton. Did you run into a train? Or shouldn't I ask?"   This was met with silence. Then Martin Pemberton in his reedy voice said: "He's alive."   "Who is alive?"   "My father, Augustus Pemberton. He is alive. He lives."   I pluck this scene from the stream of critical moments that made up the newspaper day. A second later, a cashier's voucher in his hand, Martin Pemberton was gone, his copy was on the dumbwaiter to the compositors' room, and I was looking to lock up the issue. I don't fault myself. It was an oblique answer to my question ... as if whatever had happened was meaningful only as it evoked a moral judgment from him. I interpreted what he had said as metaphor, a poetic way of characterizing the wretched city that neither of us loved, but neither of us could leave.   Excerpted from The Waterworks by E. L. Doctorow All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.


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