Wednesday, October 28, 2015

WORLD'S FAIR by E.L. Doctorow

This book doesn’t have much of a plot, but then neither did the movie Boyhood.  In this case, the primary narrator is Edgar, a 9-year-old boy growing up in the 30s in New York City.  In fact, this novel is sort of a love letter to New York, guiding us through the streets of the city and eventually through the 1939 World’s Fair, seen through the eyes of 9-year-old Edgar.  His mother Rose and his much older brother Donald narrate a few chapters, but the book primarily belongs to Edgar.  There are funny moments interspersed with sad moments, frightening moments, and historical events, such as the Hindenburg disaster and Hitler’s ascension, alongside the occasional family upheaval.  The writing is very fluid and, fortunately, more sophisticated than what we might expect of a young boy.  Near the end, he enters an essay contest whose topic is the Typical American Boy, and that essay neatly sums up who Edgar is and portrays his writing style, which really is not all that different from the language used throughout the book.  The peripheral characters are more colorful, actually than the main family, especially Norma, the attractive mother of Edgar’s pal Mae, and Edgar’s father’s sisters.  Since Edgar’s father does not narrate any chapters, we see him through Edgar’s and Rose’s eyes, and the portrait we see of him is a little blurry.  He’s something of a flirt and probably a gambler, but just as Edgar never witnesses these faults firsthand, neither do we.  The author provides a nice little bio of Donald so that we know how his life turns out, but there are no corresponding details regarding Edgar’s future.  Even so, what we see of Edgar’s life is much more than a glimpse.  He describes his surroundings and his emotions so vividly that we experience his resistance to surgical anesthesia, his anguish when he has to give up his dog, and his joy in attending a Giants football game with his father and brother.  While momentous events are occurring in other parts of the world, this family experiences their own momentous events, and those are the ones that shape who they are.

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