Dutch Schultz is a remarkable fictional achievement, largely because his spare dialogue so accurately reflects his view of the world. He uses words bluntly to say exactly what he means and what he wants. His style is to have no style, so to speak, no barrier of words that coat or deflect his true intentions. His aim is to amass power, and power is an all-encompassing reality for him, making possible not only his reputation as a gangster but his success as a lover. He would seem less impressive were it not for Billy’s faithful recording of his words without editorializing. Schultz would probably appear to an adult as merely a thug, as someone not quite grown up who cannot control his impulses. For the adolescent Billy, however, the gangster appeals for precisely such reasons: Schultz has not trimmed his character to fit the normal world; he has not shaped up to suit society’s dictates.
Billy is equally well realized as a character. He is a fascinating mixture of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. On the one hand, he has Huck’s outlaw mentality; Billy will be educated by his adventures, by pursuing the raffish world outside the classroom and the home. He has a mother, but he is—practically speaking—an orphan, and must acquire an identity by adopting the ways of Schultz’s world. He does not share his boss’s appetite for violence, but he does not flinch at it either, accepting it as part of the bargain for his apprenticeship in crime. On the other...
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