Picks and Pans Review: The Waterworks

updated 07/04/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/04/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by E.L. Doctorow

The year is 1871. Martin Pemberton, a struggling freelance reporter for the Telegram, the esteemed New York City daily, has just seen his father passing by in a horse-drawn omnibus. Problem is, Martin's father is dead—or at least, he was until now. Thus begins Doctorow's dark and compelling new novel.

Martin is a loner, so when he disappears—presumably on a quest to find his father—the only person who lakes notice is his boss, Mr. McIlvaine, the grumpy newspaperman who lakes it upon himself to untangle the web of his star stringer's life. McIlvaine approaches Martin's story with the dogged curiosity of an investigative reporter: "This is a story of invisible men," says McIlvaine, "hidden, barricaded, in their own created realm behind the thick walls of the brownstones of New York." Doctorow penetrates these walls, taking readers into a gothic city whose frightening underworld brings orphans and wealthy old men together in an evil doctor's brilliant but grotesque medical experiments.

Want lo guess Augustus Pemberton's fate? It's not a pretty one—nor is The Waterworks a pretty novel. But Doctorow fans won't be disappointed; this is a mysterious tale with the historical richness and modern sensibility they have come to expect. Doctorow delivers a cautionary tale sure to send shivers of recognition down our collective contemporary spine. (Random House, $23)

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