Saturday, October 24, 2015

LOON LAKE by E.L. Doctorow

This is not the easiest book to follow, with its multiple narrators and changing person, sometimes from first to third in the same paragraph and referencing the same character.  Joe is the vagabond protagonist, riding the rails and working for a traveling carnival in the 1930s.  Then he happens upon the lavish compound of super-rich tycoon F. W. Bennett, where Joe survives a vicious dog attack and makes himself comfortable while he recovers, ingratiating himself with the master of the estate and two other hangers-on—one who is a gangster’s moll and the other a poet.  This experience changes Joe in a radical way, in that he catches a glimpse of a lifestyle that is as seductive as it is elusive.  His next stop, with the beautiful Clara in tow, is an Indiana town with a factory owned by the above-mentioned Mr. Bennett.  Joe and Clara’s neighbor is involved in an effort to unionize the workers there, and Joe’s association with him makes Joe’s life a little more dangerous.  Reviewers have compared this novel to Theordore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, and I get that, but I kept thinking of The Great Gatsby, with the ostentatious display of wealth and the theme of longing for something or someone just out of reach.  The writing style of this book, though, is a chore to navigate with endless run-on sentences and a sort of stream-of-consciousness feel.  In many ways this is a picaresque adventure novel, but I think its confusing form limits its appeal.  I enjoyed the characters and the storyline, and especially the wrap-up at the end, and I would have loved the prose if the sentence structure had been a little more conventional.  Sticking to conventions, though, does not allow a writer to distinguish himself, I guess, but here I felt that the storyline sometimes was buried and hard to unearth from the chaos of the writing.

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