(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

One summer day in the middle of the Great Depression, the fifteen-year-old Billy Bathgate and his friends are socializing in front of a warehouse in the Bronx. The building belongs to Arthur Flegenheimer, better known as Dutch Schultz, a local boy who became a gangster by bootlegging alcohol during Prohibition. Dutch and his associates park in front of the warehouse, and the gangster notices Billy juggling across the street. Dutch calls Billy over and gives him ten dollars, saying he is a capable boy.

Billy parlays this brief introduction into a place, albeit a minor one, in Dutch’s gang. He is taken under the wing of Otto “Abbadabba” Berman, the financial planner of the outfit, who makes Billy his protégé. Billy, a teen whose friends are orphans, whose father is missing, and whose mother is an eccentric, has experienced a difficult childhood. In addition to this background, the scarcity of money and opportunity helps motivate him to join the Schultz gang.

As he becomes more familiar with Dutch himself, Billy realizes that this initially glamorous figure is really a psychotic killer, capable of violent mood swings and outbursts of uncontrolled savagery. One day not long after Billy begins to associate with the mob, he witnesses Dutch beat a city inspector to death for little more than showing up at one of his establishments at the wrong time.

Dutch Schultz and his associates are in many ways past their prime by the time Billy meets them. A major player during the bootlegging days of the previous decade, by the mid-1930’s Dutch has become an increasingly minor figure in New York’s underworld. He is under indictment for tax evasion and is being sought by the Internal Revenue Service. Much of the story takes place in Onandaga, New York, the upstate venue that Schultz has finagled for his trial.

The Schultz gang moves to the small, economically depressed town of...

(The entire section is 783 words.)