Sunday, June 4, 2017

E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime": Book Review

No, I never saw the 1981 movie. And after sampling the author himself reading the audio version in a surprisingly perfunctory, even dull, manner, I opted for the book on a recent flight to New York. The story rushed past, and as I was using a Kindle, I had no idea that the novel would finish so rapidly. I felt I was halfway through when suddenly, the characters were all wrapped up and the ending loomed. Like the audio, it's itself perfunctory in places, and it felt as if E.L. Doctorow wanted it over.

Looking back forty-plus years, this 1975 novel feels a bit dated. Of course, it's an historical narrative dramatizing real life characters such as Evelyn Nesbit and Harry Thaw, Harry Houdini and Emma Goldman, J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford, and a bit of Sigmund Freud and Booker T. Washington in cameos. This is mixed with parallel stories of a Jewish immigrant and his daughter, and the "Younger Brother" of a scion of a flags and fireworks manufacturer in New Rochelle, NY. Yes, it's a bit of an easy target for Doctorow, and like the incorporation of the Coalhouse plot that sparks the action, these themes carry a counterculture air of disdain and dismissal for the American dream and its first takers.

The immigrant vs. Yankee, white vs. black, Irish vs. everyone else tensions permeate these pages. It reads well, but the sour authorial tone dampens enjoyment. Doctorow wants us to criticize the wealthy and while this may be an admirable sentiment then as now, the intrusive voice (which in other novels I do not mind necessarily) grates now and then. He keeps a distance between us and the characters, so the events feel more staged than organically motivated. as if to exemplify class struggle. This suits the 1902-1912 focus, but when towards the conclusion, other noteworthy struggles crowd in, the pace alters and one can sense Doctorow's manipulation and compression.

If he'd taken his time in the latter portions, it might have resembled the USA trilogy by John Dos Passos even more than it certainly does, especially in the Younger Brother's picaresque itinerary. Doctorow starts this part off inventively, but he then crams in more telling than showing, and the momentum weakens when it should have accelerated after the pivotal New York City showdown.

The mechanical nature of this storyline may result, as a 1998 piece in the Observer reminds readers, from Doctorow's debt to the novella Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist. While Doctorow nods to this source for Coalhouse Walker, it does tip his own reworking of this idea into melodrama, as this Observer critic noted. Like Dos Passos, the machinations of the characters wind up less engaging than the ideas and the milieu depicted, in the early part of last century. (Amazon US 5-30-17)

No comments: