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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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