Monday, March 27, 2000

World’s Fair by E.L. Doctorow

I want to talk to you this morning about a little book by E.L. Doctorow, entitled, World’s Fair. I can’t confess to being a Doctorow fan, though I read and liked some of his earlier works such as The Book of Daniel and Ragtime. My problem with him (a problem I have with many male authors) is that I don’t really believe in his characters; they are larger than life, too heroic or too cynical or too much absorbed by their own existential dramas.

Having said that, I think it is not true of this little novel. I am next to certain that this book is much closer to memoir than it is to pure fiction. For the most part, it is written through the eyes of a young boy growing up in The Bronx in the thirties and culminating with the World’s Fair in New York in 1939. Even when the narrator changes to that of Rose, the mother of the young boy, or his older brother, Donald, it is told as if they are narrating their stories to and for the sake of the young boy, Edgar. The great strength of this book is its intimate believability. Father, mother, and brother are described in ways that are so real—warm but not sentimental. Even the grandparents, especially the smart and tough Jewish socialist parents of the father, are quite certainly recalled rather than invented.

The jacket cover of the book suggests that it is one that social historians will be grateful for because it is a wonderful time-machine, capturing the years of the Depression and the creeping shadow of anti-semitism and the coming world war. What I find important about the book is that while it is convincing and warmly wonderful as memoir, it is also a morality tale. There is real social commentary provided by the socialist grandparents and Edgar’s father, and there is also sensitive and insightful portrayal of the tensions within the family—the mother’s dissatisfaction with her own relative powerlessness as well as with the father’s absence, his gambling, his failure to stand up for her against the possessive criticisms of his own mother.

Although I see a good deal of subtle social commentary in this book and considerable understanding of relationships, it is a markedly non-didactic book. It is in the description of the power of the mother within the household, her power over Edgar and his brother, that one comes to see also how her strength and intellectual capacities are confined to the home, how they are denied an outlet into the wider world. Edgar sees also that a great deal of his mother’s anger and worry are directed at his father, sometimes unfairly, but he understands (at least as the man looking backward at his childhood) the disappointment of his mother while still feeling sympathy and love for the very traits in his father that trouble his mother.

Let me read you just a couple of passages that begin to get at the level of understanding young Edgar exhibits:
My mother ran our home and our lives with a kind of tactless administration that often left a child with bruised feelings, though an indelible understanding of right and wrong ... A strong will beamed in her clear blue eyes. There was no mistaking her meaning--she was forthright and direct. She construed the world in vivid judgments. She felt strongly that even little boys bore responsibility for their actions. For example, they could be lazy, selfish, up to no good. Or they could be decent, truthful, honest. However they were, so would their fate be decided ... Her stories dazzled me. Their purpose was instruction. Their theme was vigilance.
And continuing with a bit of description of his father:
My father was not a reliable associate, I was to gather. Too many things he said would come to pass did not. He was always late, somehow he would suppose he could get somewhere or accomplish something in less time than it actually took him. He created suspense. He was full of errant enthusiasms and was easily diverted by them. He had, besides, various schemes for making money that he did not readily confide to my mother. She seemed most of the time to be aroused to a state of worry regarding his activities.

When he was late my father was evasive, which seemed to justify her anger....

I understood that my farther seemed to elude my mother’s ideas for him. He did not comport himself appropriately, given the hard times we were living in. I knew he was unreliable, but he was fun to be with. He was a child’s ideal companion, full of surprises and happy animal energy ... He always counseled daring, in whatever situation, the courage to test the unknown, an instruction that was thematically in opposition to my mother’s.
One never doubts the love this boy has for his parents, nor their intense caring for and protection of him, but he is not blinded by that love. Without quite choosing sides, he sees and senses the strengths of both and feels within himself their combination.

Most of the asides about the coming war and the anti-semitism that is most certainly there in New York City and in all of America is subtle. This boy is, for the most part, protected, his existence insular. But he is aware of the dangers of straying even one street too far from home. After one scene in which he does, out of a sense of daring and rebellion, risk an unknown route, he is attacked by two older boys who taunt him as a Jewboy, demand his money, and at knife point, insist that he cross himself. As it turns out, he is not badly beaten, the boys running off on impulse just as they had attacked him on impulse. But the experience leaves an undeniable impression.
For weeks afterward, whenever I went out, I looked for those two boys, and the fact that I never saw them again did not remove them as a threat from my mind. I could go about my business only by the accident of their not being there, a matter certainly of their choice, and so even when absent they had me. But at the same time I knew it wasn’t even these two in particular, because Christian boys were like this all over, and you were free only at their collective whim, only if they happened not to walk down you street or lope through your backyard or otherwise see you. I struggled to understand Christianity as something that would shove a knife into my body.
This may not be a great book, but it is a good one, and just right for the busy city reader—a rather quick two hundred and fifty page romp through a boy’s life. I think you will find it a pleasure to read and that you will learn more than you might expect.

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