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Book #56: Ragtime


I didn’t really like Ragtime. I didn’t really hate Ragtime.

The novel was a little like a plain, dry biscuit without much seasoning. It might nourish you a little bit, but you’ll probably have forgotten about it by the time you take the last bite, or close the back cover—if you get that far.

I don’t know that I ever really got Ragtime. Maybe it’s the historical fiction angle. Like, why do I care to read about people like Harry Houdini and J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford and Booker T. Washington (all of whom are characters in the novel) if the story is just that—a made-up story.

If I’m going to read about Booker T. Washington or J.P. Morgan, then I want to know what really happened in their lives, not a concocted, fictional account. But that’s just my view of historical fiction. And that’s definitely what I’m left thinking after having read Ragtime.

In full disclosure, the above historical figures aren’t main characters or protagonists, but they appear enough to be a distraction to the main plot, at least in this amateur reviewer’s opinion.

The main story revolves around a wealthy, rich white family of unnamed characters (“Father,” “Mother,” “Mother’s Younger Brother,” and “Grandfather”) in a New York neighborhood. Father owns a shop that sells fireworks and flags—a profitable business due to the American patriotic frenzy prior to World War I.

Mother’s Younger Brother helps out Father during the day and stalks pretty women at night. Mother rescues a young African-American woman, who had ditched her baby, from the streets and brings both to full health.

The young mother, Sarah, reluctantly begins seeing an African-American jazz pianist named Coalhouse Walker. He buys a nice, fancy Model T that gets trashed by the racist, neighborhood fire chief, and then all hell breaks loose.

Coalhouse Walker’s pursuit of revenge against the fire chief is the focus of the second half of the novel, with a few tangents. Booker T. Washington gets involved in negotiating with the raging Coalhouse Walker.

Honestly, the plot is light. The novel is more thematically focused on the idea of the American melting plot—and all the tension that boils within. Technological advancements during this period are off the charts, forcing the characters to deal with a lot of change in their lives.


E.L. Doctorow

The dialogue is unusual. The character’s dialogue isn’t set apart, nor in quotes, like you might see in most novels. It’s just included throughout the narration. Doctorow trusts you to distinguish between where the dialogue stops and the narration begins.

E.L. Doctorow has a dry sense of humor—and, to me, that’s the strength of his novel. That’s my style of humor, so I enjoy an underplayed joke.

You might recall this excerpt that I posted last week—which is a great example of his dry, even 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.

For more on that passage, go here.

So the novel wasn’t without its bright spots. But, in all, this was just a less-than memorable book for me.

It’s one of those that, a year from now, I’ll probably do a doubletake when I look at the list and ask, So what was that one about again?

At this point, I’ll probably end up ranking it somewhere around The Assistant and The Big Sleep and Death Comes For The Archbishop. The book wasn’t bad enough to make me remember how bad it was. But it wasn’t good enough to make me remember how good it was either.

In all, just a forgettable novel for me. On to the next one.

Other Stuff

The Opening Line: “In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York.”

The Meaning: Ragtime is a style of music prevalent in the early part of the 20th century. Basically, the novel focuses on the characters’ struggle to find stability in meaning in their lives in the middle of waves of change.

Highlights: Doctorow’s ability to surprise you with his dry sense of humor is a plus. His writing is crisp, clean, and easy to read.

Lowlights: It’s me, historical fiction, not you. I’m sure many people love you. In fact, I know many people love you. But I’m not one of them. I’m sorry I don’t appreciate you, historical fiction. Fly free and be loved somewhere else.

Memorable Line: “It was evident to him that the world composed and recomposed itself constantly in an endless process of dissatisfaction.”

Final Thoughts: I’ll reiterate my opening comment: Meh. For me, Ragtime is a mostly forgettable novel. Sure, it had some highlights (mentioned in the review), but, just, meh. I’ll move on now.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. sally1137 #

    It was kinda like having a subscription to The National Enquirer in 1916.


    May 7, 2013
    • Nice comparison. Very much like that I bet!


      May 7, 2013
  2. Thanks for the review! You are performing a terrific public service. I can remove that unread book from my overstocked bookshelves.


    May 7, 2013
    • You never know, though. You may like it! If you’ve found that we have similar taste in books, then you probably wouldn’t. So much of reviewing literature is dependent on personal taste and opinion.


      May 8, 2013
  3. ABP #

    I honestly thought that Ragtime was a great book with a complicated array of themes. If historical fiction is not your thing, bravo for giving it a chance to impress you, and I’m sorry it did not, but it is much more than you give it credit for. The thing is, Doctorow has faith in his readers. That’s why he doesn’t talk about the lives of actual historical characters, he expects you to already know and use them as context. The same goes for the nameless family, they are everyman figures for the racially dominant figures of the early 1900s society. They are what is being challenged and changed through the novel. When it comes to the firemen that trash Coalhouse’s car, they are Irish immigrants themselves, and carry a chip on their shoulder about the prejudice they have encountered. The important thing to notice at that point is how they handle their retribution with violence instead of understanding that they are all the same. It’s truly a commentary on humanity and it’s ability to be blinded by defensive hate.

    Anyway, I thought I would let people know that there are many opinions out there and that yours is truly valid, but it is not a reason to write off a substantial work. It made it that far for a reason.

    Thanks for your review, just letting your audience know that reading in general is worth time spent is a noble endeavor.


    May 7, 2013
    • Great thoughts. I definitely don’t write off this work. Maybe I didn’t make it clear in this review, but I’m usually consistent about saying I understand that a lot of people think all of these books are outstanding books. They are on this list for a reason. That said, if I don’t like them, I don’t like them, and I won’t sway my opinion because they have been well received critically. It’s definitely just a matter of taste.


      May 8, 2013
  4. ClewisWrites #

    I have to say at first I felt the same way, that this was a dull and not really exciting book. However, as I continued reading, I did really come to enjoy the book. I do wish that he had named the characters but then as I thought about it, I think that it forced me to connect with the characters on a different level. The lack of names made me think of them as part of a unit, intertwined, and connected with each other.

    I read this for a 20th century lit class about 7 years ago for a college course but I can now see that I wouldn’t mind re-reading it because it’s a simple enough story that it moves and entertains.

    Good luck on the next book!


    May 7, 2013

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