Book Review – Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow


I first read this book way back in May 1977, then again in August 1998 and again in June 2012 and I gave it a 9 all three times. However, literature is art and therefore subjectivity rules. Over the years I have recommended this book to many people and gotten back black and white; great book or worst book I’ve ever read. And that’s fine. When, after “Ragtime”, I eagerly picked up Doctorow’s “Loon Lake” I got barely 50 pages before casting it aside. Ten or so years later I took it off my shelves and started again – and this time I couldn’t put it down. Depends on the mood of the reader I guess. I read Doctorow’s “Welcome to Hard Times” (his first novel), in December 1977 and really enjoyed it. His “Billy Bathgate” (Oct 1990) is also excellent (and the movie is great as well). However, my first taste of his work came with “The Book of Daniel” (given to me by a friend and I shudder to think of the very real possibility that if he didn’t do that I may have missed out on “Ragtime”).

However, however, however – no dialogue quotes. I will say in Doctorow’s defense the dialogue was inserted into the prose in a way which allowed for relatively easy comprehension (unlike some other works I’ve read). A bit of new paragraphing for new dialogue wouldn’t have gone astray (in fact more paragraphing in general wouldn’t have gone astray) and a comma after ‘said’ would have helped.

My love of this book stems from my love of the ‘historically based fiction’ genre (for instance Herman Wouk’s “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance”). But with “Ragtime” Doctorow has taken this genre to a whole new level. In a very real sense he has conscripted real life characters and set them to work as characters in his novel, doing things they could have done but may or may not have done. This is what I found so fascinating. A meeting between JP Morgan and Henry Ford could have gone unrecorded by history. However Doctorow didn’t go as far as to slip into science fiction fantasy like Seth Grahame-Smith did with his “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter”.

Reading “Ragtime” as a member of a book group I came to realise part of my brain was in critique mode, rather than ‘ordinary’ reading mode as it was with my previous reads. So, I did see some faults and I can understand why any given reader may not like this work. I was disappointed with the last paragraph of the book, the ending. It was just a list of what happened to some bit players rather than an uplifting, inspiring denouement describing the circumstances of the main family group.

But, as I drew near the conclusion of this novel I realised I was enjoying the companionship of an old friend. I will not betray an old friend. However, to avoid a charge of hypocrisy, I will deduct 2 points for the lack of dialogue quotes, but that’s down from a starting 10 rather than my usual 9. I’m putting an 8 on the table.  

This from an on-line review:
Doctorow has a love-hate relationship with the passage of time. On the one hand, it plods forward: minute by minute, day by day. This matter-of-fact progression is mirrored by the straightforwardness of Ragtime. People do things. People marry, have sex, have babies, murder other people, and fly aeroplanes.
But now and then, all these commonplace actions add up to something marvelous and wonderful—an amazing coincidence, a twist of fate, a stunning admission, or just… history being fascinating. Doctorow doesn’t seem to delve too deeply into any one character’s lives or mind. But he shows their feelings and how those feelings motivate their actions, and in doing that, shows how our actions and interactions create the time we live in.
Everyone plays a part in history, even if they don’t recognize it. When the night guard is outside the Morgan library during Coalhouse’s siege, lying on top of a roof, and can feel everyone around him:
“He lay in the rain on guard and felt, though he could not see, the presence of thousands of quietly watchful New Yorkers. During the night he thought they made a sound, some barely detectable mourning sound, not more than an exhalation, not louder than the mist of fine rain.” (37.4)
This passage combines the straightforward, matter of fact tone that defines Ragtime—yup, there are indeed tons of New Yorkers milling around New York at any given moment—and a definite sense of awe. Because what is more awe-inspiring than being surrounded by a teeming metropolitan area, where millions of people manage to coexist… even if they coexist a little dysfunctionally.

Steve Reilly