I wake to the news that E.L. Doctorow has died, and I feel a sense of loss that very few writers instill in me, particularly since I never met the man. But I’ve loved his work for very nearly forty years. No, that understates the case: I’ve been obsessed with his work for most of that time. I’ve read everything I could lay my hands on, his essays, his science fiction novel (which was never republished after its initial appearance in 1966), on the critical shelves behind me as I write this are two books of interviews with and essays on the man. I don’t love everything he wrote; two of his novels, City of God and the last, Andrew’s Brain, have a contemporary setting and I think they are his weakest (perhaps because of that). But others of his books are, I think, just about perfect.
I first encountered his work, as so many people did, with Ragtime. My copy is the 1976 paperback, and that is almost certainly when I bought and read it. I know I was bowled over by the book. The jazzy feel of it (the rhythm of the prose certainly captures the syncopation of ragtime music for me), the bold play with a mixture of real and fictional characters, I had never read anything like it before. I couldn’t even work out how it was done, how it worked its magic, all I knew was that I came away from the book with an extraordinarily vivid sense of the bustling city at that particular point in its history.
Not long after, I found a secondhand hardback copy of The Book of Daniel, so I had to snap that up. It was very different, but equally enthralling. I was vaguely aware of the Rosenberg case, and at that point in the mid-Seventies it seemed to have suddenly come back into public awareness. At around the same time Robert Coover produced his fictional version of the case, The Public Burning, which I also read. Funnily, I recognised some of the techniques that Coover used from Doctorow’s Ragtime (I didn’t yet have the word postmodernism in my consciousness), but I felt they were less successful here. Certainly I found The Book of Daniel a much better novel, and a more sympathetic take on the Rosenbergs.
Also around then I found a paperback of Welcome to Hard Times, his first novel, which had originally been published as Bad Man from Bodie, though I think the new title is better. This was a western, and I don’t read westerns, but I had seen enough of them on TV and at the cinema to have an idea what to expect. To be honest, if it hadn’t been by Doctorow I wouldn’t have read it. But it wasn’t like any western I’d seen on film, and though the prose felt almost too spare I still enjoyed it.
And after that, for a while, nothing. The various books I had all listed another novel, Big As Life, but somehow I couldn’t find that. It would be a while before I learned why.
Then came Loon Lake, which I bought immediately in hardback (rare for me in those days). This is one of the books that tends to get forgotten when people write about Doctorow, but for me it is one of the best. The different voices, the rather prismatic effect, and the extraordinarily vivid sense of what it was like in the Depression, all made this work for me. Had I the leisure right this moment to reread something purely for pleasure, this would be the book I pick up. It was also the novel that made me realise what Doctorow was doing. I hadn’t read Ragtime as an historical novel because he was doing too many startling and unexpected things with the novel. The Book of Daniel felt too recent to really be a historical (yes, I know better now). And Welcome to Hard Times was a genre novel, a western, even though it didn’t read like I expected a western to be. But Loon Lake was undeniably a historical novel, and a brilliant and vivid and surprising one at that.
For some reason I missed World’s Fair when it first came out, I only picked it up some years later in paperback along with his first collection of short stories, Lives of the Poets. Though World’s Fair now feels like the most personal and the best of all his novels, an extraordinary account of growing up in the years before the Second World War. So the next novel I read was Billy Bathgate, which really is a genre novel. (His third collection of stories, All the Time in the World, contains a short story called “The Songs of Billy Bathgate” which was originally written back in the 1960s but which of course I did not read until 2011, long after I had encountered the novel Billy Bathgate. I am still trying to work out whether knowledge of the story would have made me read the novel differently.) I suppose this was his most commercially successful novel, it is the most straightforward of his books and is probably more plot-driven than most, so it is probably the most accessible. And I did enjoy it. But it still, somehow, felt slighter to me.
Next, of course, came The Waterworks, a wonderfully brooding tale of New York’s Age of Shoddy shortly after the Civil War. I even reviewed it for Vector (the only one of his books I actually formally reviewed, though I have written about several of them), and I might try scanning that review and putting it up on the blog later (I did, it’s here). Then, after what I have to consider the stutter of The City of God, came another civil war novel, The March, which I wrote about here.
Homer and Langley shows just how much he could distort the conventional historical novel and still make it work as a portrait of an age. At the time I wrote: “Doctorow’s fictionalised take on the story of the reclusive Collyer brothers extends their lives by some 20-odd years, but otherwise does a really convincing job of getting inside their strange little world. The narrator is Homer, the blind brother, and they live a conventional wealthy life on Fifth Avenue until their parents die in the flu pandemic following the First World War and Langley returns physically and mentally changed by the experience of the trenches. Slowly their horizons shrink while Langley falls prey to a succession of obsessions and a variety of visitors from prohibition-era gangsters to 1960s hippies invade their home.” The two brothers are, in effect, isolated from time and from the outside world, so the various intrusions into their life are like stroboscopic flashes illuminating the passage of time without really touching them. Yet that outside world, that history, is illuminated and illustrated by the closed off existence of Homer and Langley.
A pity that he had to end his career with another of his weak, contemporary novels, an oblique look at the intellectual poverty of George W. Bush’s presidency. Not a bad book as such, but if you compare it to The Book of Daniel or Homer and Langley you see just how weak it is. But as his career came unknowingly towards its end, I was finally able to go back nearly to the very beginning of his career and read that long unavailable science fiction novel, Big As Life, which I wrote about here.
And now, no more. The delight I took in his fiction has been one of the consistent high points of my life over the last forty years. I regret his passing, but at least there are still the books he left behind.