Back when Writers Lifeguard was aborning, the second Lifeguard was about a book I'd first read when it came out 40 years before and had just re-read.
Tuesday, August 07, 2012
Jules Older raves about a book ............
“Checked it out of my local library for airplane reading. Lite, whimsical, Mem’ry Lane, airplane reading. Nononono. On the plane, by the bottom of page 2, I was ready to stand and salute. It is brilliant. Bold. Ballsy. Astonishing.”
The book was Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth. Now I've re-read another classic that, like Portnoy, hasn’t lost an inch over the years.
This one’s E.L. Doctorow’s 1974 masterpiece, Ragtime. Effin and I re-read it simultaneously, and both were left speechless by its brilliance. But what makes this novel such a timeless wonder? I’ll try to find my voice and puzzle that out.
Short sentences. Doctorow was determined to write a novel “garage mechanics would read.” Here’s his description of Houdini: “His life was absurd. He went all over the world accepting all kinds of bondage and escaping. He wasroped to a chair. He escaped. He was chained to a ladder. He escaped. He was handcuffed, his legs were put in irons, he was tied up in a strait jacket and put in a locked cabinet. He escaped.”
People’s vocabulary. Few fancy words here; you can read it without a dictionary nearby. “And though the newspapers called the shooting the Crime of the Century, Goldman knew it was only 1906 and there were ninety-four years to go.”
Dogged research — that never shows. Because Doctorow weaves fiction and fact in so fine a pattern you can't tell the warp from the woof, the factual part has to be spot-on. It is. You know when you read about the murder of Stanford White, the anti-Semitism of Henry Ford, the trial of Harry Thaw, the Arctic expedition of Admiral Peary, he’ll have the details dead right.
Characters you care about. The Black musician, Coalhouse Walker, Jr. The model turned material witness turned movie star, Evelyn Nesbit. J.P. Morgan and Emma Goldman. Tateh, the Jewish, Latvian immigrant. Mother and Father and Harry Houdini.
Capturing an era. The book begins in 1902, ends just after World War 1. During that time in America, race relations are sorely tested,women’s subservience is no longer a given, radical voices (like that of Emma Goldman) are heard, labor challenges capital, strikes are called and brutally crushed, the car replaces the horse, the airplane fascinates the world, and the income tax looms. Joplin trumps Sousa. In Europe, the crowned heads are terrified,even before Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated in Sarajevo. And everywhere, “decent” women can enjoy sex, not simply tolerate it. “He realized that every night since he's returned they had slept in the same bed. She was in some way not as vigorously modest as she'd been. She took his gaze. She came to bed with her hair unbraided. Her hand one night brushed down his chest and came to rest below his nightshirt. He decided that God had punishments in store so devious there was no sense trying to anticipate what they were.”
A great and satisfying ending. Nuff said.
Umami. And while all this helps explain the wonder of Ragtime, in the end, there's something more, the book’s umami, its 5th element. It’s that thing we all try to capture with our words, and so rarely succeed. Roth does. Steinbeck does. Doctorow does in Ragtime. Here's what he has to say about writing: “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader — not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”
And here, on the process of writing: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”