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Grandpa Breaks His Pelvis

Ragtime has a dark sense of humor.

The storytelling is dry, even slightly boring at times. There is no dialogue in the traditional sense—no quotes set apart from the rest of the narrative.

Doctorow’s style is unique. And while I can’t say that I’m crazy about the book, I must say I loved the following passage that illustrates his dark humor.

Spring! Spring! Like a mad magician flinging silks and colored rags from his trunk the earth produced the yellow and white crocus, then the fox grape, the forsythia flowering on its stalks, the blades of iris, the apple tree blossoms of pink and white and green, the heavy lilac and the daffodil. Grandfather stood in the yard and gave a standing ovation. A breeze came up and blew from the maples a shower of spermatozoic soft-headed green buds. They caught in his sparse. He shook his head with delight, feeling a wreath had been bestowed. A joyful spasm took hold of him and he stuck his leg out in an old man’s jig, lost his balance, and slid on the heel of his shoe into a sitting position. In this manner he cracked his pelvis and entered a period of health from which he would not recover.

Poor Grandpa.

It’s Spring! Spring! Spring! Everyone is happy. The flowers are so pretty. Happy! Happy! Happy! Then grandpa dances, breaks his pelvis, and slowly begins the process of death. Such a buzzkill on Spring, that dancing Grandpa.

I love that passage. It reminds me of the “sentence bomb” term I coined after reading Carson McCullers The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. Within a matter of words, Doctorow goes from blooming flowers to a broken pelvis.

Pretty funny stuff, unless you’re Grandpa.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Poor grandpa.

    I remember liking this book quite a bit. In fact, I have a couple of Doctorow’s other books on my to-be-read stack for a time when I need a break. I thought Ragtime was lightweight compared to many of the Times 100 books, but to me that’s a good thing. It provides relief from the constant theme of sadness and depression on the list. (Someone needs to write a literature-worthy Ode to Joy!)


    April 30, 2013
    • Yeah, it’s a little all over the place, but I liked that it focuses on Coalhouse Walker toward the end. Doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a great ending for him.


      April 30, 2013
  2. sally1137 #

    He violates the adage “Show, don’t tell.” Instead, he tells. With that, he maintains a certain distance between the reader and the story. He exploits that distance by telling increasingly wild stories about the characters.


    April 30, 2013
  3. Hey Robert, I love this way of telling about people. It is like we are the flowers and we have our time to bloom.


    April 30, 2013
  4. Gwen #

    I agree – poor Grandpa!


    May 1, 2013
  5. B3 #

    I’m enjoying your blog and I like this post a lot. Tough times for Gramps! I followed the link through to your ‘sentence bombs’ post and I reckon I have an answer to your question as to whether there exists a proper literary term for the technique. My response is a bit long for a comment, so I wrote a post about it:

    Let me know if you’re convinced!


    May 3, 2013
    • Sounds good to me. Bathos makes sense and sounds so much more official than “sentence bomb.”


      May 3, 2013
      • B3 #

        Thanks for your comment!

        Perhaps ‘bathos’ sounds official, but I think most people, including me, would still go for ‘sentence bomb’. It’s much more lively and kind of captures the spirit of the technique in itself – it’s a sort of bathos using a colloquial phrase like ‘sentence bomb’ in literary theory.

        I can see it now in the Paris Review, talking of a phrase in the Great Gatsby: “. . . it’s a passage in which the author has spared none of his skill; asyndeton and alliteration send the phrase speeding along until Fitzgerald, choosing his moment, drops a phat sentence bomb all over it. . .”


        May 3, 2013

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Wealthy, Old, Constipated Guys From Ragtime | 101 Books
  2. Bathos (A Response to 101 Books) | The BB3
  3. Book #56: Ragtime | 101 Books
  4. Rest In Peace, E.L. Doctorow | 101 Books

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