Liars are making headlines these days. Whether they dominate the news cycle or are quite literally fabricating the news depends on the colour of your hat, I suppose, but most would agree that we’ve come to a period in which public accusations of lying – not misstating, not exaggerating, but bald-faced lying – have become “normalized,” as pundits are fond of saying. It almost makes a person yearn for gentler times. Simpler times. Days before Twitter or television, when a dime could buy you a coffee, two doughnuts and a fat weekday newspaper.
Well, no – not at all.
Because it’s also wrong – perhaps the grossest of contemporary wrongs – to claim those days were gentler or simpler. For many in the first half of the last century, public life was a straitjacket that restricted identity through religious, moral and legal binds. For visible minorities, the restrictions were far more cutting. This truth, now commonplace, was a theme in E.L. Doctorow’s bestselling 1975 novel Ragtime, which traces the lives of several characters in and around New York during the early years of the 20th century. It also rings loudly in Emily Schultz’s new book, Men Walking on Water, set later, during the height of Prohibition, in late-1920s Detroit.
Though marketed as a noir-like crime novel about rum-runners, the book might be better described as a socially conscious work of historical fiction that traces the lives of several Detroiters with ties to the rum-running business – one managerial, others avocational, some circumstantial. This might seem like a quibbling distinction, but woe to those who open the book expecting frequent chapters lit by the flash of Tommy guns, the glint of knives. When rum-running is practised, it’s mostly in scenes devoted to the donkeywork of the trade: administration, business strategy, distribution and so on.
That’s not to say that the novel is without action. It opens with a Model T cracking through the ice on a smuggling run across the Detroit River, presumably drowning its driver, Alfred Moss. That’s bad news for the city’s high-profile temperance advocate, Rev. Charles Prangley, who spends his off-hours managing the booze-running business to which Moss belonged. Gone is the Canadian Club whisky stacked in Moss’s jalopy. Gone, too, is the case of cash that Moss was shuttling. As if that wasn’t bad enough, soon members of the infamous Purple Gang, a real-life mob of predominantly Jewish strongmen that dominated the region at the time, come to collect their monthly tax on smugglers. When only a fraction of that payment can be made, the gang turns violent.
Meanwhile, Moss’s disappearance throws his young wife, Elsie, into penury. Without family or social support, she draws the courage to tote her newborn baby along to the not-so-good reverend, whom she begs for relief, ignorant of Prangley’s involvement in her husband’s affairs. It’s all very sneaky stuff. Especially when we learn that Elsie was involved in an affair of her own – with architect Frank Brennan, in town to oversee the construction of the present-day Ambassador Bridge. On the other side of that bridge’s span, in Windsor, Ont., Prangley tipples and fornicates in a brothel owned by a shrewd French-Canadian businesswoman. She, in turn, develops a surprising link to the minister’s secretary. A secretary who’s slowly catching on to her boss’s reckless habit of skimming collection plates and blackmailing members of his “Pentecostal Lutheran” congregation.
Readers of Ragtime might hear syncopated echoes of that novel’s structure. Though looser than its forebear – jazzier in the way it dances from story to story, arc to arc – Men Walking on Water progresses in a similar fashion: linearly, in short chapters that jump between a sprawling cast of characters, most of whom are united by a web of circumstantial connections.
It might also bring to mind the controversial 1927 novel Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis – whose work has seen some resurgence thanks to It Can’t Happen Here, a later novel that envisions the rise of a fascist American demagogue. Elmer Gantry, as buffs of social satire remember, concerns the rise and fall of a corrupt and hypocritical Midwestern preacher during the same period that Schultz explores.
Despite the possible influence of these earlier novels, which allowed their authors to comment on social ills while building hidden worlds, Men Walking on Water is slow to develop its own. While Schultz’s previous book, The Blondes, garnered well-deserved praise for its light, playful fusion of genres, the present novel – her fourth – strains under the weight of its ambition. The book’s noirish plotting, social conscience and period re-creation often feel unbalanced; it never commits to any one character who might have provided stability or focus – there is no equivalent to a Coalhouse Walker, for example, whose revenge narrative rescues Ragtime just as its collage of minor storylines verge on tedium. Though Schultz deserves credit for scrupulously subverting noir stereotypes – from the vapid flightiness of “vixens” to the slavish swagger of “gun molls” – little of this seems new. The decision to ignore any temptation to overstate the failures of Prohibition does, however, and Schultz’s examination of the deceits forced upon many at the time, especially those who would have otherwise led ordinary lives, is smart and refreshing.
Yet the best parts of this 550-page book – beautiful and timeless moments of candour, competition and camaraderie between Schultz’s strong, well-drawn female characters – are sadly too few, crowded out by long passages of exposition. Elsie Moss’s development from a frightened single mother, handled so deftly by the author, feels similarly neglected. Even the region they inhabit never fully comes into focus; more pages seem spent with Prangley as he plots over his ledger, snug in his rectory-cum-treasury, than on the marvels of a city once considered “the Paris of the West,” the Motor City, possibly the greatest industrial boomtown metropolis – a city of endless factories and filth and art-deco filigrees.
One wonders whether Schultz’s enthusiasm for facts about the period’s history might be the cause of the novel’s occasional languor. If it were only bits of trivia shoehorned into the text – mention of new songs of that era, for example, which occasionally interrupt the flow of scenes – this could be overlooked. But one sees the problem reflected structurally. It may be correct, for example, that bootlegging was as tedious as any other small business. And it may be correct that the unpredictably ruthless Purple Gang was in retreat around the time the book was set. But neither helps propel the reader through an otherwise conventionally written novel. Rather than shape the story, they limit its play.
Decades ago, Doctorow was asked by the late George Plimpton about the research he put into the odd character of billionaire banker J.P. Morgan, who plays a famous role in Ragtime. “The main research I did,” Doctorow replied, “was looking at the great photograph of him by Edward Steichen.” According to the author, not much more was needed to bring life to the disfigured, occult-minded robber baron – a figure who still glowers in the library of readers’ memories. The specifics of Morgan’s life, including “the various companies he took over,” were added later.
“First you invent something,” Doctorow explained, “then you find a corroborating source or lie.”
Even if we chalk this up to old-fashioned self-mythologizing, Doctorow’s answer points to the dangers of precision. Alternative facts might not sit well with us when tumbling from the mouths of politicians, but they often help weave a better story.
Grant Munroe’s writing has appeared in The Walrus, The L.A. Review of Books, The Millions and other outlets. He’s the founder of the Woodbridge Farm Writers’ Retreat, based in Kingsville, Ont.Report Typo/Error
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