BOOK REVIEW / Old ghosts ride the buses: Anthony Quinn on a new novel by E L Doctorow that brings New York to bristling life: The Waterworks - E L Doctorow: Macmillan, pounds 14.99

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'THE SOUL of the city was always my subject,' says the narrator of The Waterworks, and this city being dominated by 'excess in everything - pleasure, gaudy display, endless toil, and death', it could only be New York. In the fiction of E L Doctorow, New York looms large, majestic, infinitely mysterious. In his previous novel, Billy Bathgate, he brought its streets and clubs and barber shops to bristling life, re-imagining the city through the eyes of a 15-year-old boy in the Depression-hit Thirties. For his new book he has tunnelled further into the past, to the 1870s, to the New York of new money and new technology, a city on the rise after the bitter years of civil war.

Foreshadowing the ganglords who would take over the city in the Twenties and Thirties, the New York of 1871 is run by Boss Tweed, an unscrupulous eminence who keeps the whole town - from chimney sweeps to police commissioners, from school janitors to court judges - in his extremely capacious pocket. The Age of Innocence it decidedly isn't. Children are bought and sold on the street, privilege lives cheek by jowl with privation, the slave trade still turns an iniquitous profit. Training a jaundiced eye on this municipal corruption is Mr McIlvaine, city editor of the Telegram, who tells the story of The Waterworks after years as a dogged chronicler of Manhattan life. And what a story it turns out to be. 'I have to warn you', he writes, 'these are the visions of an old man'. Yet however disturbing those visions are, there proves to be nothing senile about his recall.

McIlvaine's remembrances centre upon one of his freelances, Martin Pemberton, a proud, uncompromising young man who feuded with and then disinherited himself from his late father, Augustus, business magnate, war profiteer, and 'Ozymandias of the slave trade'. One rainy morning, on his way to the offices of the Telegram, Martin glimpses a crosstown omnibus carrying ghostly old men dressed in black, one of whom he recognises as his father - supposedly dead and buried. Shaken, he reports this sighting to McIlvaine, who has little time to ponder its implications before Martin disappears. The editor sets out to find his freelance, now officially a Missing Person, inquiring among Martin's family and friends for clues. He enlists the aid of Edmund Donne, something of a rare bird in this city - an incorruptible policeman. Their investigations lead them into the dark heart of the city, where science and money have dreamed up an unholy conspiracy to cheat death itself.

Doctorow's control of his material is masterly. The single image of the spectral omnibus is so vivid, so haunting, one can't for a while turn the pages fast enough to discover its true meaning. Characters are brought into the plot with great dexterity, each of them providing a 'mosaic bit of glitter' to the design - Martin's fiancee; his stepmother; the drinking companion who first learnt Martin's secret; the priest who ministered to the Pemberton family; and the shadowy presence of Dr Sartorius, whose work opens up new vistas of Gothic grisliness. Far from being just a story of one family's decline and fall, The Waterworks is an ominous meditation on the whole idea of progress, whether moral, social or scientific. How far can enlightenment be pursued? As Sartorius reflects, 'Sometimes I cannot understand how these demanding questions of truth do not impel everyone - why I and a few others are the exception to the mass of men so content with their epistemological limitations that some even make poetry of them.'

It comes as quite a surprise to find a happy ending in a book so preoccupied with the dead (and, to borrow from Bram Stoker, the undead). McIlvaine's story, with its exhumations, funeral parties, rotting corpses, surgical experiments, has about it the whiff of mortality, yet it closes on the sunnier business of matrimony. Also unusual is the narrative style, ridden with ellipses perhaps intended to convey the hesitant, deliberative manner of McIlvaine himself. It's the narration of a man used to looking after the words of others, slightly formal at first bite but, after a while, compelling.

Aside from everything else, Doctorow has taken the urban scene to a new pitch of lyrical resonance. This New York story hums with the bustle and brio of a metropolis creating itself, sloughing off old skins and eating up new territory, 'an acceleration of energies' that sweep along the populace at chaotic speed, oblivious even to those, like Doctorow's scribe, who hear a melody in its maelstrom: 'Drivers snapping their reins and teams shying with that rhythmless gait given to horses when there is no open space ahead of them. A discordant ground music of hooves clopping on cobblestones. The cries of reinsmen, the gongs of the horsecars, and the hum of their flanges on the tracks. The rattling wheels and drumming boards of innumerable carriages, stages, wagons, and drays.'