In E.L. Doctorow's Billy Bathgate, why does Dutch take on Billy?
Billy knows exactly what he’s doing in Chapter Two of E.L. Doctorow’s novel Billy Bathgate. He has set himself up squarely in Arthur Flegenheimer, a.k.a., Dutch Shultz’s line of sight and proceeded to juggle assorted items, including rubber balls, an orange and an egg. As he continues to display his ability to juggle objects, Billy subtly watches Flegenheimer using his peripheral vision, noting “I pretended I was not aware he stood there with his elbows on the car roof and watched with a smile on his face a juggling kid . . .” As he continues to entertain one of New York’s most ruthless gangsters, Billy proceeds to let the objects, one by one, fly off into the distance, to the amusement of his audience:
“And there I stood with my palms up and empty and my gaze transfixed in theatrical awe, which, to tell the truth, was a good part of what I felt, while the great man laughed and applauded . . .And then Mr. Shultz beckoned me with his finger. . .I faced my king and saw his hand remove from his pocket a wad of new bills as thick as half a loaf of rye bread. He slipped off a ten and slapped it in my hand. . .’A capable boy,’ he said by way of conclusion . . .”
Doctorow’s novel, of course, goes back and forth in time, beginning with Shultz/Flegenheimer’s nighttime cruise with Bo Weinberg, the latter bound by rope with his feet submerged in hardening cement, the better to facilitate his descent to the ocean floor. Billy has been witness to this, and to acts of cruelty. As these sections alternate with Billy’s story of how he came to be associated with this legendary gangster, he describes his continued manipulation of Shultz and his surroundings for the purpose of ingratiating himself with this cold-blooded killer. Bringing a bag of cupcakes – Dugan’s cupcakes, at that – into Shultz’s presence, the gangster, initially ignoring the young man slavering diligently to retrieve the illegal betting slips that have scattered to the floor following Shultz’s latest outburst, suddenly takes notice and inquires of his most trusted aide, Berman, the identity of this stranger. “’He’s just some kid,’ Mr. Berman said. ‘He’s our good luck kid’.” “For some reason,” Billy explains, “that answer satisfied Mr. Shultz. ‘We could use some,’ he muttered and disappeared into his office.”
As Billy continues his story, he remembers that it was Berman, not Shultz, who actually hired him, or brought him into the gangsters’ life: “Mr. Shultz had made a judgment, but Abbadabba Berman had engaged me.” Dutch Shultz takes on Billy because he views the boy as a good-luck charm.