John's Reviews > The March
by E.L. Doctorow
by E.L. Doctorow
I'm a big fan of Doctorow, and we go way back; he's probably the first serious contemporary novelist I read, thanks to a copy of Ragtime acquired when I attended Ragtime Night at Comiskey Park sometime in the late 1970s (I find the notion that copies of a Doctorow novel were given away by the thousands at a White Sox game only slightly more mystifying than the fact that I was attending a White Sox game to begin with). This, however, is not his strongest work. Doctorow used Sherman's March to the Sea as a backdrop for a big, sprawling, multi-focused narrative in the Ragtime vein; he even nods to that earlier work at one point through a minor character, Coalhouse Walker, Sr. -- presumably the father of Ragtime's protagonist. But it doesn't work as well as Ragtime, I think because there's no central conflict tying all the narrative threads together. I suppose you could argue that the Civil War itself is that conflict, but Doctorow seems to have little new to say about that, and placing the emphasis on such a familiar historical narrative detracts from fully developing his characters. I think Doctorw's at his best when he manages to balance imagined social/popular histories with rich, fully-developed characters; Ragtime may be his masterpiece, but I'm even fonder of World's Fair and Billy Bathgate because they do that so well. Here, the history is too canonical, and the characters seem to disappear into it. Still well-written and diverting, but ultimately a bit disappointing for this fan.
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