Billy Bathgate centers on the career of the notorious gangster Dutch Schultz as told through the sympathetic voice of his fifteen-year-old acolyte, Billy Bathgate. Schultz represents to Billy a way of getting out of the slums, of distinguishing himself as an important figure by joining a powerful and much-feared organization. Indeed, the novel begins with a breathless rendition of a punishment favored by gangsters: the disposal of a rival by encasing his feet in cement and drowning him. The victim is Bo Weinberg, once a trusted Schultz associate, now a man condemned for betraying his boss. Billy vividly portrays both the cruelty and the courage of these men. Bo is defiant to the last, refusing to abase himself or show any fear. Schultz is ruthless but respectful, conceding Bo’s talents, and even admitting that Bo can get the best of him in their arguments. Bo has always had a way with words, Schultz wryly admits.
Although Schultz’s violence is repugnant—he physically smashes a man into a pulp—his very irrationality makes him appealing; that is, he is not a calculating, evil man but rather an impulsive, poorly educated one who has learned how to dominate a brutally competitive world. He has his code of honor, and he demands loyalty, which, except for Bo, he commands. This is also why he can win over Drew Preston, Bo’s girl. She is not awed by the gangsters, but she is stimulated by him, because he is such a contrast to her society husband and to the world of wealth that masks its evil behind good manners. Schultz may be abrupt, crude, and awkward, but he is also direct and plainspoken. Like his expressions of violence, his expressions of love are unfettered and robust, so that there is a thrilling quality to his masculinity.
Schultz, though, is in trouble, because the government has brought a case against him for tax evasion. His solution is to cultivate the upstate New York community where the trial will be held. Exhibiting himself as a public benefactor, Schultz and his lawyers craft a...
(The entire section is 830 words.)