Billy Bathgate


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'I was living in even greater circles of gangsterdom than I had dreamed, latitudes and longitudes of gangsterdom' It's 1930's New York and fifteen-year-old streetkid Billy, who can juggle, somersault and run like the wind, has been taken under the wing of notorious gangster Dutch Schultz. As Billy learns the ways of the mob, he becomes like a son to Schultz - his 'good-luck kid' - and is initiated into a world of glamour, death and danger that will consume him, in this vivid, soaring epic of crime and betrayal.

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May 27, 2017

Doctorow's Billy Bathgate

Much of E.L Doctorow's finest writing celebrates the vibrancy, brashness, and diversity of New York City. Doctorow's novels also show a fascination with secular Jews -- with individuals who abandon traditional Jewish religious practice and adopt various other types of life. Thus, "The Book of Daniel" explores New York City in the 1940s in a historical novel based upon the Rosenbergs. Doctorow's remarkable novel, "City of God," explores contemporary New York City in the context of secular Jews and of highly liberal Jews who have adopted beliefs and practices far different from traditional Judaism.

In "Billy Bathgate", Doctorow offers an unforgettable picture of gangland New York City and of Jewish mobsters dominated by the figure of Dutch Schultz, as Doctorow takes the reader away from the humdrum everyday and into a world of rawness, danger, and excitement. Life needs its dangers and risks, Doctorow seems to be telling the reader, if it is not to be stupyfing, dull, and conventional.

"Billy Bathgate" is a coming-of-age story set in the New York City underworld of the 1930s. The book is told in the first person by its hero, the fifteen-year old Billy (who takes the name "Bathgate" from the chief commercial street in the East Bronx) who becomes attached to the gang led by the notorious Dutch Schultz (1902 -- 1935), born Arthur Flegenheimer to a poor Jewish family in the Bronx. The book is told in a breathy, highly excitable and emotive style appropriate to the voice of its young, naive protagonist. Billy's father had disappeared when the boy was young, and Billy lives with his poor, at best marginally sane mother. He seems destined for a life of petty thievery and cheap tawdry sex until Dutch Schultz notices the boy juggling on a street corner near a beer drop-off. Billy ingratiates himself with the Schultz gang in its declining days. Schultz becomes a father-figure to Billy. Schultz basks in the attention he receives from the boy and in his public notoriety.

Doctorow has written a richly-textured historical novel which shows us New York City and the gangland world. While the reader comes to understand and sympathize with Billy, Doctorow does not allow the reader to lose site of the random viciousness of gangland life. There are scenes of shocking violence and killing, the most fully developed of which involves the murder of Schultz' former associate, Bo Weinberg. Dutch Schultz in all his brutality and intensity come to life in this book as do the members of his inner circle. His chief lieutenant, Otto Berman, known as "Abadabba" Berman, a mathematical genius, becomes a mentor to Billy and is one of the most sharply-drawn characters in the novel. At great peril to himself, Billy becomes involved with Schultz' final mistress. This affair becomes the focal point of his coming to a degree of self-understanding. Rival gangs and New York officialdom, including District Attorney Thomas Dewey also receive a rich portrayal.

Much of the symbolism of the book revolves around the use of words and of change, as Billy Bathgate, Abadabba Berman, and Dutch Schultz, among others, adopt names not their own. Billy's skill at juggling, which appears at many points in the book, becomes a metaphor for the importance of adopting to change and of being light on one's feet if one is to succeed in the world. As Berman counsels Billy in many of their astonishing conversations, only the numbers are real while words change. Religion, and Jewish-Christian relations play a role in this book as well, illustrating the theme of constant change, as Dutch Schultz appears to convert from Judaism to Catholicism late in the novel. The book captures the fast-paced, slangy style of speech of its protagonists and includes as well heady, striking, and detailed passages of description.

This is a tough-minded novel, a gripping read, and, in its own way, an inspiring tale. "Billy Bathgate" is an unforgettable work by one of the United States' major living storytellers.

Robin Friedman

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