E.L. Doctorow was one of the first writers I met. This was at the Egg, Albany’s performing arts center, in the spring of 1990. He was surprisingly soft-spoken. He’d recently been named New York State’s state writer, an honor he treated with due irony, asking the audience who came to see him if we could name the state bird, and the state muffin. He read an excerpt from the beginning of Billy Bathgate, his most recent novel, answered questions from the audience, then dutifully signed books.
I’d been aware of Doctorow for at least a couple of years–mostly as the author of Ragtime, which had been adapted for the big screen, but also of World’s Fair, which had been excerpted in one of those Scholastic magazines we got in English class. I’m not sure how I learned that he was going to be reading in Albany; mostly likely from a poster for it in the English department at SUNY New Paltz, where I was a senior. I got the idea that I would go see him, and convinced a number of my friends to accompany me. Billy Bathgate was newly out in paperback. I’d wanted to read it since reading its reviews, which were not just positive, but glowing; the upcoming reading gave me the excuse to buy and read it.
I was dazzled. The combination of Doctorow’s prose–Billy Bathgate, who narrates the book, is, as Doctorow put it, “a rhapsodist”–and the subject matter–Billy becomes part of Dutch Schultz’s gang–held me spellbound. It’s a potent blend, the lyric and the violent. Plus, the novel was set in New York State, ranging from New York City to Saratoga. Under the sway of Faulkner, I had been trying to make more use of local material in my own fiction; Doctorow offered a compelling example of it. I neglected most of everything else I was supposed to be doing for school, preferring to linger over the novel’s pages.
When I handed Doctorow my copy of Billy Bathgate for him to sign, I told him this. Actually, it spilled out of me in a rush. I had been extremely nervous, standing in line to have my book autographed. Reading the novel, I had formed a mental picture of Doctorow as this towering genius, well-above the concerns of a twenty-one year old college student. Yet as I told him how impressed I was by the book, how I might fail all my classes because I’d been reading it, instead of what I was supposed to (a bit of exaggeration), but that was okay, because it was such a great book, his features softened, and I realized that he was moved by my babbling. “Thank you,” he said, “thank you for telling me this.”
It was a moment of revelation: he’s like me, after all. And (by extension) if he can do this, so might I (some day). It was as obvious as such revelations often are, but the effect was such it lingers, still.
In the years to come, I read more of Doctorow’s work: Ragtime, and World’s Fair, and Welcome to Hard Times, and the astonishing Book of Daniel. In recent years, I fell behind on his fiction; I kept meaning to get to City of God, but other things cropped up. I’ve read enough, though, to know his accomplishment was considerable, and his works will endure. I’m grateful for his fiction, and I’m grateful for his moment of kindness to a kid who was overwhelmed to meet him.