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New versions of old books you should have already read

There are two things I like to ask myself when I get a new E.L. Doctorow novel: First, what snippet of history will Doctorow blend with his fiction this time? And second, why doesn’t he just drop the act and become El Doctor, the notorious Mexican surgeon/avenger? I’m just saying that it’s there for the taking, Doctorow — oh that the rest of us should be so lucky as to have names quite so ready for parody!

I guess the real second question is, can you wax nostalgic when you weren’t there in the first place? Take Doctorow’s Ragtime: I read this novel, and I’m dying to be that turn-of-the-century kid wearing short pants, doffing his hat, and screaming “extra, extra!” while trying to sell newspapers. I guess I’d probably be more suited to the profession of pickpocketing. Or I could be that bald weight-lifter type, with a curly mustache, riding one of those bicycles with the enormous front tire. I’ve never seen the Broadway musical Ragtime, but I imagine there’s a lot of that kind of stuff on stage. There’s a lot going on in Ragtime, but my favorite part is the tale of Coalhouse, a pianist who experiences a nasty incident of racism and then becomes a terrorist because of it, setting up shop in J.P. Morgan’s New York mansion. Who knew J.P. Morgan was a real guy? Those kinds of historical personages take on this weird, inanimate identity — something akin to Captain Kangaroo or Tom Brokaw.

Yes, Doctorow’s nostalgia is fascinating. In his World’s Fair, little Edgar Altschuler idolizes Joe DiMaggio and overhears the adults speaking of the rise of Hitler. And while the Great Depression soils the air, Edgar sees the World’s Fair breaking through the fog. When Edgar finally makes it to the fair, the Zoltar Speaks game grants his wish to be big, and then, in a moment of great hilarity, he eats baby corn as though it were corn on the cob. Okay, that last bit actually might be from something else. However, World’s Fair is still a reversion-to-childhood piece.

In The Waterworks, a newspaper editor searching for a missing freelance writer in the decade after the Civil War finds himself in the middle of a startlingly bizarre mystery. The Waterworks doesn’t make you nostalgic, exactly, but it does make you happy that you don’t live in New York a decade after the Civil War, what with its maimed veteran vagabonds, its lack of health codes, and its tightly packed disorder.

And does anyone remember Julius and Ethel Rosenberg? They were a deliciously GetSmart–ish couple of communist sympathizers who ended up sitting in “old sparky” at Sing Sing. Read The Book of Daniel and you shall find their stand-ins as its subjects. A fellow named Daniel should be writing his dissertation, but his autobiography sidetracks him. He is the son of a deliciously Get Smart–ish couple of communist sympathizers, etc.

This summer, Random House Trade Paperbacks reissued these four books by E.L. Doctorow — a quartet of novels for people who love American history but would rather not be bogged down with a bunch of facts. These are backdrop novels at their finest. — J.D. Reid