E. L. Doctorow (1931 – 2015)

In the mid-1990s I bought a beat-up hardback of E. L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime at Green Apple for a few bucks, took it home, and thought about the movie version of the novel, and how it featured perhaps the first naked woman I’d ever seen, Elizabeth McGovern in the role of Evelyn Nesbit. The movie of Ragtime came out in the early 1980s and back then PG-rated movies featured nudity. It was a good time to be a kid and a moviegoer. McGovern more than Doctorow made me buy the book.

I read Ragtime in one long sitting. It’s a baffling novel, jokey with historical figures like Houdini and Theodore Dreiser, and kind and affectionate to its principals like Mother, Mother’s Younger Brother, Coalhouse Walker Jr, and Tateh. It’s a book about race and class and desire, it’s damn sexy and at times damn frightening, and there are interspersed scenes of Doctorow the narrator talking about shifts in mood and temperament of America–some of these are hokey but they serve the same purpose as the macro-USA chapters in The Grapes of Wrath. The prose is assured and at times seems to resemble newspaper reporting–that is meant as a compliment.

I enjoyed other Doctorow novels, especially The Book of Daniel, which might be his best novel, but there are a half-dozen sharp scenes in Ragtime I will never forget, no matter how much the rest of it fades from memory.