Monday, September 22, 2014

"World's Fair"
by E. L. Doctorow
E. L. Doctorow’s World’s Fair chronicles Edgar Altschuler’s recollections of his first ten years of existence, the growth of his childish awareness of the difficulties of life, and the personal handicaps placed on him as he attempts to acquire self-assurance and experience happiness. Edgar is a Jewish boy growing up in New York City’s Bronx during the rise of Nazism in Germany. His health is problematic. His family’s economic stability is tenuous. His parents’ relationship is combative. The younger son of the family -- a “mistake” baby, eight years younger than his brother and mentor, Donald – he is dominated by his parents and his sibling. He must forge his way through all of these difficulties to develop the self-confidence necessary to persevere against the adversities, both indiscriminate and deliberate, of his time and location.

As an infant, Edgar was asthmatic, allergic to everything, a great burden to his resolute mother. “I was attacked continually in the lungs, coughing, wheezing, needing to be steamed over inhalators. I was the mournful prodigy of medicine … I was plugged regularly with thermometers and soap water enemas.” Much later in the novel he suffers a burst appendix and must survive peritonitis.

Through most of the story Edgar’s father owns a record, sheet music, musical instrument, and radio appliance store in Manhattan. Later, he is forced to move his business and loses much of his clientele. Near the end of the novel he loses the store.

Edgar the adult confides that “the conflict between my parents was probably the major chronic circumstance of my life. They were never at peace. They were a marriage of two irreducibly opposed natures. Their difficulties created a kind of magnetic field for me in which I swung this way or that according to the direction of the current.”

Late in the novel Donald assesses his father. “Dad went off in all directions, he was full of surprises, some of them were good, some not so good. But it kept everyone on edge, Mother especially. … He was the kind of man to fool around, to philander. He was errant. He had a wild streak to him. He was generous to us … but he had his secrets and they came out of the same part of his character that made him dream big impractical dreams that he couldn’t realize.”

Edgar’s assessment of his mother appears fragmentally throughout the novel. “My mother ran our house 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. … There was no mistaking her meaning—she was forthright and direct. She construed the world in vivid judgments. … Everything she did was a declarative act. … My mother wanted to move up in the world. She measured what we had and who we were against the fortunes and pretensions of our neighbors.”

Edgar overhears her understandable complaints to a visiting friend. “‘I have exactly three dresses that I wash and iron and wash and iron. … I haven’t bought a stitch of clothing in years. And he plays cards. He knows we need every penny and he plays cards. … He comes home at one, two in the morning. Where has he been? What has he been doing! I’m struggling here all by myself, trying to keep things going…. And when he is home he runs to Mama. [Believing her not worthy of her son, the mother-in-law is incessantly critical of her] … I’m a good wife. … I don’t think I’m all that bad a person to be with.’” The father’s retort to her criticisms is nearly always the accusation: “‘You’re a suspicious person, you’re always thinking the worst of people.’”

Edgar learns early of hatred toward Jews prevalent in poor Irish and Italian East Bronx neighborhoods, “where people lived in ramshackle houses with tar-paper siding amid factories and warehouses.” He has noticed from his bedroom window “strange youths not from the neighborhood … vaulting over the fences into our yard. They climbed the retaining wall and disappeared. These were the boys who hated boundaries and straight lines, who traveled as a matter of principle off the streets, as if they needed to trespass and show their scorn of property. … They were the ones, I knew, who chalked the strange marks on our garage doors.” Swastikas. “‘They’d like to be Nazis,”” Edgar’s mother warns him. “‘They carry knives. … They rob. You come inside if you see them.’”

Several years later Edgar, returning from a public library located close to an Irish, Italian neighborhood, is confronted by several such boys. He is threatened by a knife, forced to lie that he is not a Jew, and is robbed of the coins in his pocket. The incident is one of the major traumatic events of his young life, and it is the major catalyst of sudden growth of maturity and self-esteem, which he exhibits near the end of the novel.

World’s Fair is not among my most favorite historical novels. My interest in the story lagged in several places. For example, I would have appreciated less detail about the exhibits of the New York World’s Fair. I did not become connected initially with Edgar and his parents. I put the book aside for an entire month before I decided to finish it. However, I recognize entirely E. L. Doctorow’s skill as a writer. His depth of characterization, his richness of historical detail, the seriousness of his themes, his use of sensory imagery (Edgar’s trip to the hospital following the rupture of his appendix and his struggle not to succumb of ether was masterful), his use of humor (Edgar was critical of The Shadow because he would not use his special power either to observe ladies undressing or kill Hitler), the poignancy of several key scenes (Edgar knows that the children in his hospital ward are dying because the toys that they receive are expensive, elaborate, and not appreciated and they have excluded him from their friendship knowing they are dying and he isn’t): all of this is worthy of a ten-page essay replete with many examples. E. L. Doctorow’s World’s Fair is better than many books I read but not one of my top ten.