Picks and Pans Review: World's Fair

updated 12/02/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/02/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

by E.L. Doctorow

Somehow, without selling his soul, Doctorow has managed to regain the awed perspective of a child in this novel of rare warmth and intimacy. The focus is Edgar Altschuler, a boy growing up in New York City in the 1930s. Told mostly from the boy's point of view, the story begins with Edgar as a baby who has just been changed in the middle of the night by his mother: "I ride, the young prince, in her arms to their bed, and am welcomed between them, in the blessed dry warmth between them. My father gives me a companionable pat and falls back to sleep with his hand on my shoulder. Soon they are both asleep. I smell their godlike odors, male, female. A moment later, as the faintest intimation of daylight appears as an outline of the window shade, I am wide awake, blissful, guarding my sleeping parents, the terrible night past me, the dear day about to dawn." As a little boy at the beach, he reflects, "Sand is in my crotch. I am turning red, the sun is inflating me. I eat sandwiches on the blanket, I drink cherry Kool-Aid, which is like liquid Jell-O. All speech is shouted, the surf crashes, I fear only two things, the water crashing up at my feet and the desert hordes of human beings among whom I may get lost." Later, Edgar learns at the library of an essay contest on the 1939 New York World's Fair, the novel's climax: "I copied down the information on the poster. My heart was beating wildly. I worried that the old people trying to read their periodicals would hear it and the derelict men nodding in their hard chairs would wake up, and all of them would give me dirty looks." The boy's family is peopled with intriguing characters, but Doctorow exhibits none of the cosmic reach shown in some of his other novels; yet there is here a world of life, depicted in such a lovely, true way that the characters seem somehow profound. Stony indeed is the heart that cannot be moved by this book. (Random House, $17.95)

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