Posts Tagged ‘appreciation’

doctorow“You may think you are living in modern times, the here and now, but that is the necessary illusion of every age. We did not conduct ourselves as if we were preparatory to your time.”

That’s the narrator McIlvaine talking near the beginning of The Waterworks, my favorite of E.L. Doctorow’s novels. Out of a swirl of snow in 1871 New York City, a young man glimpses the face of his dead father in the window of a public omnibus going crosstown. This ominous vision is just a preview of mysterious events yet to come — the exhumation of a grave in a fog-draped cemetery, orphans exchanged for cash in city taverns, fearsome experiments in secret laboratories. But Doctorow has more on his mind than just chills and thrills. That The Waterworks works as a suspenseful mystery, an entertaining period piece and provocative social commentary on our own time is credit to Doctorow’s skillful melding of history and imagination. As Bruce Weber wrote in his comprehensive obituary in The New York Times, “a good part of Mr. Doctorow’s achievement was in illustrating how the past informs the present, and how the present has evolved from the past.”

It’s interesting to read all the admiring comments from readers, both in the Times and on Facebook. Everybody wants to mention their favorite Doctorow novel —  and there are many to choose from. Ragtime, of course, is the most famous, mixing historical events and figures with fictional ones in wildly inventive fashion. But then there’s Billy Bathgate, about a Bronx teen who becomes an errand boy for gangster Dutch Schulz, and The March, which reaches back to the Civil War and Sherman. World’s Fair is the most autobiographical, focusing on a young boy in the Depression-era Bronx. Then there’s his reimagining of the Rosenberg case, The Book of Daniel. A friend told me he started it twice and didn’t finish it because of the unfamiliarity of the narrative style, its mix of memories and documents. But on a third reading, he became totally immersed and found it brilliant.

Doctorow’s books are evocative, elegant, experimental. I met him a couple of times and interviewed him back in the early ’90s right before the movie of Billy Bathgate came out, coincidentally following other gangstercentric movies such as Goodfellas, Miller’s Crossing and The Godfather.

“For me, the book began with an image,” Doctorow said. “I kept having this mental image of several men in black tie on a tugboat at night. There was such a contrast between these elegant figures and the tug that I finally decided they had to be gangsters and what they were doing was something nefarious.”

Indeed. Readers are not likely to forget the chilling scene that Billy witnesses after slipping aboard a tugboat where members of Dutch Schulz’s notorious gang are bidding farewell to colleague Bo Weinberg. “Now not just his feet but his legs to the knee were exposed. Irving rose from his kneeling position and offered his arm, and Bo Weinberg took it, like a princess at at a ball, and delicately, gingerly, placed one foot at a time in the laundry tub in front of him that was filled with wet cement.”

For all that the novel centers on Billy’s apprenticeship to the Schulz gang, Doctorow said it’s not really a book about gangsters. “It’s about a boy’s life and the ambiguous fascination with evil that people have.”

Still, he didn’t know what direction the book would take when he began writing.

“I write to find out what I’m writing,” he said. “It’s a process of discovery. An image that I use to explain it to people is that it’s similar to driving a car at night. You can’t see any further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

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rendellSometime back in the 1980s, I called Ruth Rendell “a literary Hitchcock,” and the phrase stuck. It was picked up in blurbs on paperbacks, sometimes attributed to me at the Orlando Sentinel, sometimes to other papers — the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Chicago Tribune — where my reviews also ran. I repeated it myself, or variations thereof, as in this 1989 review of  The House of Stairs, written under her Barbara Vine pseudonym: “Again we see how Rendell/Vine has become the Hitchcock of the literary thriller, approaching her subjects from unexpected angles and finding the odd twist that throws readers for a loop.”

Oh, I’m going to miss her. Ruth Rendell died Saturday in London, age 85. She wrote more than 60 books, both traditional detective stories featuring Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford, and chilling novels of psychological suspense. She wrote the latter under the Rendell name, and she further transcended the genre with the Vine books. The first was A Dark Adapted Eye in 1986, and she once told me in an interview that she knew from the beginning which book would be a Ruth Rendell and which a Barbara Vine. “Barbara,” she said, “was more serious,” and the crimes depicted were more sensational, the kind that captured public attention and might result in a dramatic trial or a family scandal.

All of her novels were intricately plotted, less interested in the “whodunit” and  more in the how and why. I’m pretty sure I’ve read them all, including the collections of short stories and the frosty novella Heartstones. Many of her characters were outsiders, perhaps mentally disturbed or caught up in strange obsessions. She was interested in questions of identity, especially in the Vine novels, and her narrators tended toward the unreliable. She wasn’t afraid of the sordid, the grotesque, the downright creepy.

In person, Rendell was pleasant and thoughtful, somewhat reserved. She took her writing seriously, she said, but not herself, and she had more ideas than time to write. Her most recent Rendell was The Girl Next Door, which I wrote about in the post “Scare Tactics” in November of last year. Its mystery centered on a pair of severed, skeletal hands — one male, one female — found in a tin box by construction workers. The last Wexford was 2013’s No Man’s Nightingale, in which the aging detective  came out of retirement to investigate the murder of a vicar. But this is no armchair cozy, I wrote, because the strangled vicar is a single mother, whose race, gender and progressive views divided her congregation. (After 2004’s The Babes in the Woods, the 19th Wexford, Rendell told me she thought it might be the last unless she had a really good idea. She then wrote five more Wexfords).

Vine wasn’t quite as prolific as Rendell. There are just 13, including 2013’s The Child’s Child, a book within a book. I wrote that whenever Rendell assumes her Vine pseudonym, I think of a snake in a figure eight swallowing its tail or of matryoshkas, the Russian nesting dolls. The Vine novels still can surprise me on rereading because I never can remember all the secrets of The Minotaur, say, or Asta’s Book (published in the U.S. as Anna’s Book).

The New York Times obituary states that Rendell’s final book, Dark Corners, is to be published in October. I don’t know if it’s a Wexford, a Rendell stand-alone or a Vine. I know I can’t wait to read it, and that I’m sorry it will be the last.

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