Books: The Artist as a Very Young Critic: WORLD'S FAIR

WORLD'S FAIR by E.L. Doctorow; Random House; 288 pages; $17.95

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Like generations of authors before him, Edgar Lawrence Doctorow blends fact and fancy and calls the results novels. His tragedy of political passion, The Book of Daniel, was based conspicuously on the Rosenberg atom-spy case. Although he changed names and broadened perspectives, it was impossible to turn a page without thinking about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on their way to the electric chair. The real had again overpowered the imagined.

Ragtime solved this problem in high style. Its storybook setting in America before World War I gave Doctorow enough distance to rewrite history. Nobody complained when Sigmund Freud visited Coney Island, Henry Ford conspired with J.R. Morgan, or Evelyn Nesbit (the Girl in the Red Velvet Swing) was converted by Anarchist Emma Goldman. Wrapped in nostalgia, Doctorow's dramatizations of rapacious capitalism, racism and revolution were defused of controversy. Unlike Daniel, a dredger of bad memories and mixed feelings, Ragtime was a safe book.

By comparison, World's Fair is downright guarded. Doctorow calls it a novel. But the book reads like a memoir, and is unmistakably based on the author's early boyhood in the Bronx. The account begins with a bed wetting in the middle of the Depression and ends on the eve of World War II with a nine-year-old Edgar Altschuler burying a cardboard time capsule containing a Tom Mix decoder badge, his school report on the life of F.D.R., a harmonica and a pair of Tootsy Toy lead rocket ships, "to show I had foreseen the future."

Little Edgar is a witness to the nation's possibilities. He has been to the 1939-40 World's Fair, with its models of superhighways, bullet-shaped automobiles, electrical appliances and television, or "picture radio." He has, in fact, been there twice. The first time he accompanied a friend whose mother worked with Oscar the Amorous Octopus, a titillating sideshow at the amusement park. He returned on a family pass that he had won for his fawning entry in a typical-American-boy contest. The essay is heavy with irony. It also introduces a writer who knows what it takes to get on the bestseller list: "He roots for his home team in football and baseball but also plays sports himself. He reads all the time. It's all right for him to like comic books so long as he knows they are junk. Also, radio programs and movies may be enjoyed but not at the expense of important things. In music he appreciates both swing and symphony. In women he appreciates them all. He does not waste time daydreaming when he is doing his homework. He is kind. He cooperates with his parents. He knows the value of a dollar. He looks death in the face."

Edgar is no stranger to portentousness. Three years earlier he watched the German airship Hindenburg float overhead on its way to Lakehurst, N.J., where it exploded at its mooring. But such encounters with history are few and infrequent. Mostly he catalogs childhood sights and sounds: his dog Pinky, knickers and knee socks, a backyard igloo in winter, a beach in summer. Occasionally his mother Rose breaks into the narrative to complain about her respectable poverty, her husband's failure as a businessman, his card playing and carousing. Dave Altschuler is part owner of a music store located in Manhattan's Hippodrome theater. He may not be the city's most aggressive merchant, but even Lee lacocca would have had a hard time making it during the Depression.

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