E. L. Doctorow: The Book of Gratitude

on Saturday, July 25, 2015
If ever I was pushed to name what I consider to be that most elusive of creatures, The Great American Novel (or at least the modern incarnation thereof), I might ponder a shortlist that includes The Plot Against America, To Kill A Mockingbird, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Road. It wouldn't take too long, though, before I shoved them all aside in favour E.L. Doctorow's stunning masterpiece, The Book of Daniel.

I know that many readers revere Doctorow for books like Ragtime, Billy Bathgate and The March but for me it is his 1971 reimagining of the Rosenberg executions that not only showed who Doctorow was as a writer, but also perfectly captured the soul of America. It is angry. It is sad. It is hopeful. It is a war within itself.

Doctorow was a fiercely political writer but, as opposed to many of his like-minded contemporaries, he was wonderfully subtle in the delivery of his message. He allowed the beauty of his words to woo the reader to his way of thinking. There was little political exposition or sloganeering. Just powerful, warm, heartfelt prose that helped to shape the reader's political and moral consciousness.

In his later works, Doctorow continued to pick at the scabs of American society though only once - in The March - did he return to the kind of historical fiction upon which his reputation was built. Religious tribalism (not to mention his personal spiritual struggle) got a decent skewering in the difficult City Of God. The story of the Collyer brothers gave Doctrow the perfect vehicle to interrogate the modern materialist obsession in Homer & Langley. And most recently, Doctorow struggled with ageing and the uncomfortable metamorphosis of his homeland in the uncharacteristically patchy Andrew's Brain.

E.L. Doctorow died this week. I didn't really know what to say about him - I'm no expert when it comes to his life or work. I just know that I am thankful for The Book of Daniel. It changed my life. And for that I felt I needed to say something.


Josh Caporale said...

I just bought Andrew's Brain the weekend before he passed away. I definitely want to read something of his and wished I went to the Barnes & Noble author event/book signing he held a few years back. I will have to check out his other works as well, especially The Book of Daniel.

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