Ally Armistead's Reviews > Ragtime

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow
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Sep 03, 2008

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** spoiler alert ** "Ragtime" is one of the most unusual novels I have ever read. It is fragmentary, hectic--the lives of early twentieth-century people, some famous and others fictional, burst onto the page without apology, without qualification or exclamation for their ambition. Houdini strives to stand out and above the progress in technology. Morgan wants to find the essence of the genius. Emma Goldman wants the world to run amuck, promotes anarchy and freedom of all humans--outside of institutions. Evelyn Nesbit wants to be beautiful forever, taken care of by wealthy men. And then there are fictional characters who intersect with the lives of these famous people: a family of an explorer, a black man who fights for the justice of his people, a young man who is swept away into the romantic lust of revolution.

In all of these chaotic tales, a truth emerges about the early 20th-century in this country: the quest for place. And in Doctorow's quick phrases, we almost hear the faint notes of the infamous rag "The Entertainer": the swanky, hip, innocence of ambition before its fall.

The most powerful portion of the novel is devoted to Doctorow's fictitious character, Coalhouse Walker, a well-educated black man whose Ford is destroyed by white men. Outraged, the black man demands justice, and payment to restore his car. The white men refuse, and Coalhouse takes it to the police, who do nothing. In his frustration, he tells his fiance he cannot marry her without justice, and in her despair, the fiance appeals to the President of the United States, but her black hand is mistaken for a gun, and she is beaten to death. Beyond despair, Coalhouse rages terror over the city until his car his repaired. The police force agree to his terms, but only upon Coalhouses's surrender. He does so, and is gunned down in the street. This is an amazing story and I wish Doctorow had centered his whole novel on this amazing tale.
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Andrew Nice review, but I would add a spoiler note!


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