Billy Bathgate by E. L. Doctorow

Billy Bathgate
E. L. Doctorow


If you like intelligent and well-written historical fiction and New York stories about organized crime during the 1930s, check out Billy Bathgate, by E. L. Doctorow. Published in 1989, Billy Bathgate won both the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. The 1991 movie stars Dustin Hoffman, Nicole Kidman, Loren Dean, Bruce Willis, Steven Hill and Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire).

Billy Bathgate is a fifteen-year-old boy from the Bronx who becomes a protégé of the notorious Dutch Schultz, a hot-head New York mobster who made his money during the 1930s running beer and controlling the numbers racket. Billy is a fictional character, but he moves with the very real Schultz and his advisers, including Schultz’s genius accountant, Otto “Abbadabba” Berman, hit man Lulu Rosenkrantz and lawyer Dixie Davis. With no father and a mother who is not altogether with it, Billy looks to Schultz and Berman to show him how to make it in the world. His initiation into the gang begins with a chilling murder at sea, during which one of Schultz’s associates, Bo Weinberg, has his feet set in a tub of cement.

But Billy has joined the gang at the end of Dutch Schultz’s reign over organized crime in his part of New York. Narrated through Billy’s voice, the story tells of Schultz’s wildly unpredictable and violent temper and of his upcoming tax evasion trial. Drew Preston is a young and beautiful society woman who is difficult to read. She becomes Schultz’s companion and a dangerous temptation for Billy.

Beating the tax charges might not be enough to keep Schultz out of trouble. Schultz’s end is near when his political connections fall through, and his plans to kill Thomas Dewey, a U.S. attorney and prosecutor, are unsupported.

Billy’s reflections are both street-smart and deep and this point of view presents a surprising narration. He is naïve and sweet and crude and eloquent at the same time. His reader appeal and respect is in his innocence and in his ability to take care of himself. And Doctorow has a way of making Schultz’s illegal and violent henchmen seem fatherly at times. He presents them as professionals who take extreme pride in what they do, from neatly rolling up the cuffs of the doomed Weinberg to shooting precisely, to performing elaborate acrobatics with numbers.

I enjoyed reading Billy Bathgate because the author does a great job showing the positives and obvious negatives of these complex characters and historical figures.  Billy also makes some terrific philosophical and spiritual observations about this life.

Here are a few of my favorites:

When Billy describes the sounds of an unexpected murder, he says, “…and when its echoes died away I heard the silence of the sudden subtraction from the universe of a life…” p. 196

As he reflects on the importance of money, Billy says, “It didn’t matter how the money stopped flowing, in or out, the result was equally disastrous, the whole system was in jeopardy, just as, if the earth stopped turning, according to what a teacher explained to us once in the planetarium, it would shake itself to pieces.” p. 280

And when he thinks about the men who died at the Palace Chophouse, he remarks, “What happened to the skills of a man when he died, that he knew how to play the piano, for instance, or in Irving’s case to tie knots, to roll up pant legs, to walk easily over a heaving sea?” p. 312.

I like Doctorow’s writing style. He uses long sentences, with lots of commas and they often take up an entire page. But they always return to the central point and I think they are easy to follow. The book has the inevitable and uncomfortable violent scenes, but a story like this could not be told without them, so they serve a necessary purpose.

This is a very entertaining and educational read and it describes a unique period of time in New York City. And it’s so well-written that it is just as great now as it was twenty-five years ago!

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