A mystery set in 1870's New York

Monday Book Review

June 27, 1994|By Dave Edelman

THE WATERWORKS. By E.L. Doctorow. Random House. 253 pages. $23.

ALL HELL seemed to be breaking loose," writes E.L. Doctorow in his latest novel, "The Waterworks." "The collapse of a system, even a system that subjugates them, unsettles folks . . . we were going to have to face up to the truth, all of us who made up this town of calamitous life."

That town, of course, is New York, and that system is the corrupt pseudo-government of bribery and extortion headed by gangster Boss Tweed in the 1870s. But "The Waterworks," more than an historical fiction in the city that also provided Doctorow the setting for his acclaimed novels "Ragtime" and "Billy Bathgate," is a suspenseful mystery and a sweeping philosophical analysis of humanity's relation to science and religion as well.

The story begins with free-lance writer Martin Pemberton catching sight of his dead father, a former Civil War profiteer and slave trader, riding a horse-drawn omnibus. Pemberton, an iconoclast who has severed ties with his father and the family's ill-gotten fortune, begins hunting around for clues to his father's strange reappearance. The youth soon vanishes.

His sometime employer McIlvaine, the editor of a daily newspaper and the narrator of "The Waterworks," takes up the search for Pemberton with the help of police captain Edmund Donne. Playing Watson to Donne's ultra-methodical Sherlock Holmes, McIlvaine soon discovers that Pemberton's sighting was delusion, but part of a conspiracy as large as New York itself.

McIlvaine and Donne are soon hot on the trail of one Dr. Sartorius, a macabre scientist who tinkers with the very building blocks of life. Their pursuit of Sartorius takes them to the heart of society's obsession with science and technology, and leads McIlvaine to ask a question that's as old as the Garden of Eden: is there a point where the pursuit of knowledge becomes immoral?

The character of Dr. Sartorius is a throw back to such legendary turn-of-the-century creations as H.G. Wells' Dr. Moreau and Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll. A tenacious and single-minded devotee of science, Sartorius shuns the ordinary rules of human behavior that most people depend on.

But in a world just beginning to shake the grip of inane ritual and paralyzing superstition, the mad doctor's dogged pursuit of the truth makes a perverted sort of sense. McIlvaine understands this morbid curiosity that human beings have, and as a result refrains from simplifying Sartorius to a one-dimensional manifestation of evil. "After all, what do we live for?" he asks. ". . .We live for proof, sir, we live for the document in our hand. . . . The glory we seek is the glory of the Revelator."

Fans of Edgar Allan Poe will find much to admire in "The Waterworks," with its tense plotting and eerie narration peppered with philosophical asides. Doctorow belongs to the ranks of popular writers like Anne Tyler and John Updike whose works are easily digestible on the surface, but contain a wealth of buried treasure for those who wish to explore their depths.

Doctorow, an unabashed liberal and somewhat heavy-handed sermonizer, provides perhaps his most disturbing indictment of American society yet in "The Waterworks." The New York City that McIlvaine explores belongs to powerful men who regulate their affairs quite beyond any concept of morality or rationality or sense of purpose. It's a universe of moneyed entities who manipulate the affairs of their "lesser" brethren without qualms, motivated solely by the basest instincts of self-preservation.

The most interesting character in "The Waterworks," however, is New York City itself. More than a collection of buildings, Doctorow's New York is the incarnation of the twisted aspirations of its citizens, a social creation which turns on and controls its creators.

Thanks to Doctorow's keen ear and sharp insight into the human condition, it's a city brought to miraculous life in one of the year's best novels so far.

Dave Edelman writes from Baltimore.

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