Page: G10

Sunday, June 12, 1994


TIM WARREN The Baltimore Sun

NEW YORK When E.L. Doctorow writes about the past, sometimes he uses his memory flawed though it may be. ``I have a terrible memory,'' he told an interviewer once, though it served him well enough to write such evocative novels as ``World's Fair'' and ``Billy Bathgate,'' both set in the 1930s in his native New York.

Other times, he uses images. For instance, his rambling old house in New Rochelle got Doctorow thinking about the history of the place and then beginning a novel set in the early 1900s. That was ``Ragtime,'' his breakthrough 1975 book, which won him not only great critical acclaim but also wide popular success.

Perhaps no other contemporary author uses the past to such great effect in fiction as does Edgar Lawrence Doctorow.

His novels are not only set in the past, they also embellish it. Historical figures, such as J.P. Morgan in ``Ragtime'' and Dutch Schultz in ``Billy Bathgate,'' become major characters in his fiction. His novels have been called historical fiction, but they really are reworkings of history through his fertile imagination.

A few years ago, Doctorow started thinking about the huge reservoir that used to stand at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue in New York. He thought about New York in the 1870s a city on the move, relentlessly modern, embracing the latest innovations of the Industrial Revolution. He pictured it to be a time both of fabulous wealth and great poverty, of exciting possibilities and also corruption and social dislocation.

Out of these imaginings came his sixth novel, ``The Waterworks,'' which will be released this month by Random House. Once again, Doctorow has been drawn back to the past, and once again he has richly reinvented it.

The vividness of Doctorow's writing, his attention to detail, has won him many admirers among other writers. One is William Kennedy, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel ``Ironweed,'' whose first book, ``The Ink Truck,'' was edited by Doctorow in the late 1960s. The two have remained friends since.

``I just find him one of the best contemporary novelists,'' Kennedy says. ``He invariably is a good storyteller. His prose is wonderfully intelligent and extremely readable, but also always with serious weight to the work.''

At 63, Doctorow looks very much the respected literary figure, professor (he still teaches at New York University) and former editor (of Norman Mailer, Kennedy and James Baldwin, among others). He favors casual slacks and cardigans; his silver beard is neatly trimmed. He is low-key and unassuming, with a dry wit (asked to explain a character in ``The Waterworks,'' he answers with a smile: ``I don't know. It's hard enough just to write these books without having to explain them, too'').

Doctorow offers that Greenwich Village's history as a Bohemian center and bustling street life helped him evoke the feel of New York in the 1870s in ``The Waterworks.''

``I wrote a good deal of this book here,'' he says, holding his hand up to indicate the apartment he keeps near New York University (he also has the house in New Rochelle and a beach place in the Hamptons). ``As a matter of fact, it was very important for me to be here at one point just walking around lower Manhattan to get a feeling of the streets.

``I seem to have always written about New York,'' Doctorow says. ``It just kind of fuels my imagination. But there are different New Yorks.''

And it's a decidedly different New York that he writes about in ``The Waterworks.'' Henry James wrote about New York during this time, and so did Edith Wharton. But their mannered, genteel society was considerably removed from that described by the newspaperman/narrator McIlvaine in ``The Waterworks'':

``As a people we practiced excess. Excess in everything pleasure, gaudy display, endless toil and death. Vagrant children slept in the alleys. Ragpicking was a profession. A conspicuously self-satisfied class of new wealth and weak intellect was all aglitter in a setting of mass misery. Out on the edges of town, along the North River or in Washington Heights or on the East River islands, behind stone walls and high hedges, were our institutions of charity, our orphanages, insane asylums, poorhouses, schools for the deaf and dumb, and mission homes for magdalens. They made a sort of Ringstrasse for our venerable civilization.''

``There was a certain point toward the end of this book where I said to myself, `This is not Edith Wharton,' '' Doctorow says. ``None of the people, for instance, in (Wharton's) `The Age of Innocence' would think about what was going on in New York at the time. So everything those people were not thinking of is in this book.

``This is a counterpoint, in effect, to the Jamesian, Whartonian strategy of staying with money or at a high enough level in the money so you can watch people climbing up desperately into it. But they never climb above those matters, except to be somewhat critical of those who are not established.

``These are strategies that reflect in a certain sense the values of the authors. And, of course, what you leave out in a novel is just as important as what you leave in. I kind of left that upper-class world out in order to stay with the people who had kind of dropped out, or with the people who had aspired to it. And also the newsboys and the Civil War veterans.''

Though it seems that Doctorow writes only about New York, his first novel was a Western ``Welcome to Hard Times,'' published in 1960. He had spent three years as a reader in the story department of Columbia Pictures, going through hundreds of novels and screenplays. Out of that experience came the belief that he could do as well, if not better, than the people he was reading.

He spent several years as an editor with the New American Library and the now-defunct Dial Press in the 1960s before quitting to write full time. From his editing experience, he says, he learned to take apart a work and put it back together. He also learned how to respect an author's voice, which may account for his unusual ability to write novels with distinctly different tones.

Copyright 1994, Times Union, Albany, N.Y.

E. L. Doctorow