The Short Version: A family struggles to define itself, an immigrant struggles to make a life, a man struggles for respect, and a nation struggles overall in this kaleidoscopic view of the opening decade or so of the 20th Century, as seen by New Yorkers both famous and ordinary.
The Review: I’ve seen the musical version of Ragtime several times and I can’t really call any of it to mind. Friends, many of whom have performed in it, adore the show but it never made a dent for me.
However, I was lucky enough to produce an event that included Mr. Doctorow in summer 2014 (here he is, reading and sassing Herman Melville) and when he passed earlier this year, I was reminded that I’d never actually read anything by him. With the change in BookClub of Jake (who had already read this book and as I recall very much loves both it and the musical) heading off to Syracuse and the Jesuit novitiate, it seemed like the timing couldn’t be better.
And I have to say, I was surprised by the book. Doctorow’s avuncular voice made the book an easy, swift read – although it also made for a few uncomfortable moments, when he wrote about sex or got a little too preachy about something. Still, that’s how we all feel when a family member (parent or aunt/uncle) gets a little uncomfortable in their storytelling and the warmth of Doctorow’s writing gets us through.
It’s an oddly structured book, in many ways – almost less a novel than a series of scenes, especially in the first half. As we sat around at BookClub discussing this, we couldn’t really say what the plot was in the early going – it’s not until the introduction of Coalhouse Walker Jr., halfway through the novel, that anything resembling a plot begins to really coalesce. It could be said that the first half of the novel does the work of preparing us for the story – we get time with the unnamed Family who serve both as characters and as audience surrogates – but the sensation is a little more episodic than preparatory.
The Family is an interesting choice on Doctorow’s part. It’s always a little dangerous when an author decides to plant fictional characters in the middle of history. It can often work – and sometimes work quite well – but as a reader, I often still have the slight question of “what really happened?” It’s not like with The Last Pilot, where Johncock’s character replaced an actual person, but the injection of this family into reality shakes history off of the path we know it took and into a just-slightly-different time stream. Houdini crashing his car in their yard in the first scenes of the book, for example: Houdini could well have met a family under those circumstances but they weren’t this family. Evelyn Nesbit may well have carried on with a besotted pseudo-revolutionary… but was it Mother’s Elder Brother? Doctorow’s decision to leave them unnamed feels at once like a way to give the audience an opportunity to map their own image onto the characters… but also a cop-out in terms of planting his story firmly into history. He wavers, unwilling to commit to the reality of playing with history.
Until he does commit, that is. The second half of the novel, when Coalhouse begins his crusade, creates events that didn’t actually happen – like a hostage attempt at the Morgan Library. Doctorow gets to have it both ways, which is not a bad thing and he actually pulls off the feat of keeping the reader solidly engaged even as he changes tactics, but it does create a lingering sense of diffusion. A member of my BookClub asked if we thought Doctorow had been crafting some of these scenes almost as short stories and then decided to, midstream, change it up and deliver plot. I don’t know – and I don’t so much mind. But I did notice the difference.
Still, these faults are Readerly faults as opposed to actual things to dislike. The magic of Doctorow’s novel is that he spins up a place that many of us are very familiar with – New York City – but a time that few of us really know (let alone remember). I lived on 13th Street, in a building built over where Emma Goldman had lived in this novel – and to see her, even a fictionalized version of her, moving through that space at that time… it gave me a true thrill. And while the stream of cameos of Actual Famous People can sometimes be a little much, it’s also just fun to recognize that the world was a bit smaller back then. Perhaps novels of today will show run-ins between Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Amy Poehler, or whoever you can imagine – but it won’t seem so plausible as it does here.
What remains plausible, though, it must be said, is Coalhouse’s struggle. It is staggering to imagine that this book is set over one hundred years ago… and yet the same race problems inflame our country on a daily basis. I won’t get into it too much – Doctorow, for all his intensity towards the subject, remains calm in his writing – but there is a sense of him, writing in the 1970s, and saying “it was wrong then, it is wrong now.” It’s our fault for not having, in the ensuing 40+ years, changed our ways
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. A strange novel, almost comprised of two different approaches to storytelling – and Doctorow’s attention wanders at times (Tateh disappears for more than half of the novel before returning as though he’d never been gone). But his warm tone and avuncular attitude make this a delightful and easy read. He captures a place near to my heart in a time I don’t know much about – and he makes it come to a kind of life, even if that life is (in the end) nothing more than an old movie.