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The Waterworks

The Waterworks

4.3 3
by E. L. Doctorow

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“An elegant page-turner of nineteenth-century detective fiction.”
–The Washington Post Book World

One rainy morning in 1871 in lower Manhattan, Martin Pemberton a freelance writer, sees in a passing stagecoach several elderly men, one of whom he recognizes as his supposedly dead and buried father. While trying to unravel the mystery,


“An elegant page-turner of nineteenth-century detective fiction.”
–The Washington Post Book World

One rainy morning in 1871 in lower Manhattan, Martin Pemberton a freelance writer, sees in a passing stagecoach several elderly men, one of whom he recognizes as his supposedly dead and buried father. While trying to unravel the mystery, Pemberton disappears, sending McIlvaine, his employer, the editor of an evening paper, in pursuit of the truth behind his freelancer’s fate. Layer by layer, McIlvaine reveals a modern metropolis surging with primordial urges and sins, where the Tweed Ring operates the city for its own profit and a conspicuously self-satisfied nouveau-riche ignores the poverty and squalor that surrounds them. In E. L. Doctorow’s skilled hands, The Waterworks becomes, in the words of The New York Times, “a dark moral tale . . . an eloquently troubling evocation of our past.”

“Startling and spellbinding . . . The waters that lave the narrative all run to the great confluence, where the deepest issues of life and death are borne along on the swift, sure vessel of [Doctorow’s] poetic imagination.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Hypnotic . . . a dazzling romp, an extraordinary read, given strength and grace by the telling, by the poetic voice and controlled cynical lyricism of its streetwise and world-weary narrator.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer

“A gem of a novel, intimate as chamber music . . . a thriller guaranteed to leave readers with residual chills and shudders.”
Boston Sunday Herald

“Enthralling . . . a story of debauchery and redemption that is spellbinding from first page to last.”
Chicago Sun-Times

“An immense, extraordinary achievement.”
–San Francisco Chronicle

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Each novel by Doctorow is an entirely different experience, a journey of the imagination into hitherto uncharted territory. The Waterworks , set in the corrupt but hideously exciting New York of the decade following the Civil War, is the strangest such journey yet. The narrator, an elderly newspaperman named McIlvaine, recalls the bizarre events surrounding the disappearance of one of his paper's best freelance writers in 1871. Martin Pemberton was the son of Augustus Pemberton, a brutal, cunning man who had made a fortune as a war profiteer, then died, leaving his family mysteriously penniless. Martin was convinced he had seen his father alive, in a coach in the company of other old men; then Martin vanished. McIlvaine interests the municipal police, in the person of odd, incorruptible Captain Edmund Donne, and together they ferret out a weird scheme in which aging millionaires have paid the brilliant, cold-blooded Dr. Sartorius to preserve their lives in a state of suspended animation. The tale has the brightly lit intensity and surreality of a dream, heightened by McIlvaine's halting, amazed narration; and such is the power of Doctorow's imagination that the very city itself, its burgeoning modernity, its huge machines, its febrile citizenry, seems to become a major actor in the drama. World's Fair and Billy Bathgate were both given a human dimension by their child's-eye point of view. Here Doctorow is taking a larger risk by placing the reader at a much greater distance from the events and subduing his contemporary sensibility in favor of a wonderfully convincing 19th-century angle of vision. It is as if Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James had somehow combined their incompatible geniuses to bring this profoundly haunting fable to life. (June)
Library Journal
In the kind of historical fantasia we have come to expect from Doctorow, a young man in 1870s New York spots his supposedly deceased father on a horse-drawn omnibus and follows him into the depths of the city.
School Library Journal
YA-Newspaper editor McIlvaine investigates the disappearance of freelance journalist Martin Pemberton and uncovers a macabre scientific experiment that involves Pemberton's supposedly dead father and several other wealthy old men. The narrative's digressions contain the heart of the novel: Doctorow's presentation of New York in 1871 as impacted by the Industrial Revolution and the corruption of Boss Tweed's government. Although the book is not overly long, its complexity of diction will deter all but the most erudite YAs. Those who persevere will gain insights into journalism, post-Civil War society, and political corruption while considering the implications of medical experimentation, then and now.-Arlene Bathgate, Chantilly High School, VA
Zom Zoms
Doctorow's ninth novel is another variation on his favorite theme, New York City's delirious history, but it's an entirely different creature than its predecessors. Set in New York during the frenzied and cynical aftermath of the Civil War, this suspenseful narrative is told by an old, wry newspaper editor named McIlvaine. It all began with the disturbing, if not downright inconvenient, disappearance of McIlvaine's favorite freelance writer. Moody, young, and uncompromising, Martin could have been rich since his profiteering father amassed vast sums slave trading and selling shoddy goods to the Union army, but Martin objected to his father's venality and immorality and got himself disowned. His handsome young stepmother did no such thing, yet, when old Pemberton dies, she is left destitute: the family fortune is nowhere to be found. Just before Martin vanishes, he tells friends that he has seen his allegedly dead father riding around in a white coach. McIlvaine turns to the one police officer he trusts, an uncommon man of uncommon height and shrewdness. As they begin their investigation, we are reminded of the Holmes-Watson team, but as this astonishing and ghoulish story unfolds, we also detect echoes of tales about mad scientists, vampires, and the pursuit of eternal life. Curiously, New York City itself becomes the central character. An "unprecedented life form," it seethes with the hectic hustling of street urchins, thugs, and corrupt officials. Doctorow revels in dramatic descriptions of the rapidly mutating cityscape while he dramatizes life's brutal pragmatism and our capacity for sinister acts. Gothic and penetrating, rooted in Poe and Melville, and crisply written, this is a rare treat.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
"Haunting...mysteriously sinister. A gothic tale with the same concern about amoral science that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley to write 'Frankenstein'." -- New York Times

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
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Meet the Author

E. L. Doctorow’s works of fiction include Welcome to Hard Times, The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, Loon Lake, World’s Fair, Billy Bathgate, The Waterworks, City of God, The March, Homer & Langley, and Andrew’s Brain. Among his honors are the National Book Award, three National Book Critics Circle awards, two PEN/Faulkner awards, and the presidentially conferred National Humanities Medal. In 2009 he was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, honoring a writer’s lifetime achievement in fiction, and in 2012 he won the PEN/ Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, given to an author whose “scale of achievement over a sustained career places him in the highest rank of American literature.” In 2013 the American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded him the Gold Medal for Fiction. In 2014 he was honored with the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction.

From the Hardcover edition.

Brief Biography

Sag Harbor, New York, and New York, New York
Date of Birth:
January 6, 1931
Place of Birth:
New York, New York
A.B., Kenyon College, 1952; postgraduate study, Columbia University, 1952-53

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The Waterworks 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
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