Wednesday, 21 February 2001

E.L.Doctorow: The Waterworks (1994)

Edition: Picador, 1995
Review number: 761

The industrialisation of the northeastern United States is one of the most important processes in the development of the modern country, but lacking the romance of the Wild West and the South it is not so frequently a subject for fiction. Doctorow's novel, which is set in New York in the early 1870s, is an exception, and it is a gothic tale strongly influenced by writers of the period.

The narrator is a newspaper editor, who is in a good position to understand New York in this period of rapid change, as the city expands at an incredible rate after the North's victory in the Civil War while remaining under the corrupt government of the Ring led by Bill Tweed. A symbol of the changing city, which is the source of the title, is the vast reservoir behind high walls in the north of the city, providing water to supply industry and the expanding population.

The gothic side of the novel is a Frankenstein inspired plot, which begins when one of the freelance contributors to the newspaper sees his dead father in a carriage on Broadway. The father had been a rich man, his fortune founded on the slave trade and wartime profiteering, and his son had been disinherited following an argument about morality. But when Augustus Pemberton had died, the fortune had disappeared, leaving the widow and another son virtually destitute.

The Waterworks is more than a historical novel. Indeed, it is very unlikely that the events described in the novel could have taken place. It is in part a homage to the Gothic, and is also intended to show something about today's America. This is basically that the single-minded pursuit of wealth does not produce happiness - something which may seem obvious, but often seems to be ignored in practice.

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