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CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD E.L. Doctorow’s The Waterworks mixes a bizarre horror story with the sights and sounds of 19th-century Manhattan

BY PAUL GRAY

A beautiful widow left destitute by the will of her plutocrat husband. The surreptitious exhumation of a corpse while fog swirls in the phosphorescent light of early dawn. A treasure chest crammed with cash. Innocent children falling victim to a mad scientist in pursuit of the secret of eternal life. A brilliant, tormented young hero who says things like, “Either I am mad and should be committed, or the generations of Pembertons are doomed.”

Now for something truly weird. These gothic, melodramatic flourishes appear not in the first chapter of the latest Stephen King novel but rather in E.L. Doctorow’s The Waterworks (Random House; 253 pages; $23). This is not entirely unexpected. The author of such luminous page turners as Ragtime, World’s Fair and Billy Bathgate has made it a habit to surprise his readers with each new book. His central concerns – the unavoidable sway of historical forces, the insidious effects of the powerful upon the powerless – have remained constant, but he has chosen a variety of fictional voices and techniques to bring them to life. Even longtime readers, though, are likely to find The Waterworks Doctorow’s strangest and most problematic invention so far.

The setting is New York City in 1871, although the story of what happened there and then is told at an indeterminate later date by a man named McIlvaine, who notes, at one point in his narrative, “I have to warn you, in all fairness, I’m reporting what are now the visions of an old man.” A number of similar caveats are interspersed throughout the story, and taken together they add another level of mystery to the point he makes over and over again: he has been a witness to horror and lived to tell the tale.

Which, perhaps, begins as follows. As the city editor of the New York Telegram in April 1871, McIlvaine employs a number of free-lance writers, including his most talented, Martin Pemberton, the disinherited son of of the late Augustus Pemberton, a millionaire whose death and funeral had made the papers the previous September. None of the editorial comments or public eulogies mentioned the true sources of the old man’s fortune, although McIlvaine the newspaperman knows what they were: Pemberton had run illegal slave ships out of New York harbor, with the connivance of Boss Tweed’s ring, and had also profitably supplied Union troops during the Civil War with substandard goods – “boots that fell apart, blankets that dissolved in rain, tents that tore at the grommets, and uniform cloth that bled dye.”

Now, Martin Pemberton tells McIlvaine and several others, he has seen his father alive, on the streets of Manhattan. The editor at first assumes that the disillusioned young man is speaking in metaphor, that he means his father’s evil lives on in the rapacious city all around them. After Martin drops out of sight, McIlvaine begins to investigate and comes to believe the vision could have been true, that a white Municipal Transport stagecoach might actually have carried old Pemberton and other presumed-deceased rich men through the teeming, oblivious streets of Manhattan. McIlvaine imagines Martin’s impression of the passengers: “Their heads nodded in unison as the vehicle stopped and started and stopped again in the impacted traffic.”

To find out whether and why the city he loves and thinks he knows includes the living dead, McIlvaine seeks the help of Edmund Donne, a rare honest captain in the municipal police, which has become, under Tweed, “an organization of licensed thieves.” The trail these two follow – with powerful forces conspiring against them – leads sinuously through accumulating outrages: unexplained murders, a mysterious orphanage, missing millions in inheritances and a waterworks north of the city where very strange things are going on.

This chase is fascinating, although wildly implausible, but McIlvaine makes the worst of a good thing by insisting that what he reports has implications far beyond its particulars: “I would not have extended myself now, at my advanced age, if this were just the odd newspaper tale I had for you … of aberrant family behavior. I ask you to believe – I will prove – that my freelance, finally, was only a reporter bringing the news, like the messenger in Elizabethan dramas …” His story, the narrator says several times, is “far more than” the mystery of the Pemberton family.

This claim is asserted but never convincingly shown. The shocking, Poe-like tale at the center of the novel does not achieve the emblematic significance that Doctorow wishes it to have. It is simply too bizarre to stand for – or comment on – anything outside itself, particularly the entire City of New York and what McIlvaine calls its “roiling soul, twisting and turning over on itself, forming and re-forming …” The Waterworks is at its best when Doctorow stops McIlvaine’s huffing and puffing about social significance and lets him get on with the business of telling an entertaining and sometimes truly haunting story.

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