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“Life is like an onion: you peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep.” This platitude, attributed to poet Carl Sandburg, may be an attempt to number the various dimensions of human existence and, in so doing, attempt to say something about life’s own complexity. Like all clichés, though, it achieves a partial success. Without some acknowledgement of the dynamic workings of life, you’re left with, well, damp pieces of onion.
Consider, instead, the swirling life inside a mixing bowl — that is, a Brooklyn-based mixing bowl that’s filled with immigrant experience and criminal intent and a particularly hard-hearted disregard (by many) for feeling and sentiment. E.L. Doctorow knows from mixing bowls and offers a multi-layered account of the fluid boundaries between commodity and person, deception and disillusion, fate and decision.
And now [Ramon] regretted bragging to her about what an independent person he was, with his uncompromising values. … And neither did this life he had drifted into have anything to do with values. He had felt restless, with only a vague ambition to make films, and gripped with a kind of wanderlust, though he had not wandered further than Brooklyn.
Though restless and stationary, Ramon is not completely lost. He knows his moral center and takes a practical approach to life, allowing himself to be led by love and fate.
By and by, he came to the beachfront. The air was fresh, gulls rode the breezes, and Ramon felt unaccustomedly at peace in the wind-buffered sun with the blue seawater in his eyes. This feeling stayed with him as he wandered back into a local business district and saw the sign in Borislav’s window: “Dishwash Is Wanted.” He liked that locution, suggestive of a foreign tongue, and so he walked in and became a dishwash, only to rise to busboy, waiter, and married man.
Literary grandmaster E.L. Doctorow is the author, among other works, of ten novels. His most recent book, All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories, will be published next March. He is Lewis and Loretta Glucksman Professor in American Letters and Professor of English at New York University. Edgar Lawrence Doctorow will turn 80 on January 6, 2011.