Readers of E.L. Doctorow will immediately appreciate this spellbinding novel because so much of its terrain--and its characters--seem familiar. As in Doctorow’s WELCOME TO HARD TIMES and LOON LAKE, the narrator-hero is a precocious young man who attaches himself to powerful father-figures and sexy ladies who are only slightly older than himself. As in RAGTIME, there is a considerable amount of eroticism. Billy Bathgate, the Irish-Jewish hero of this work, falls in love with Rebecca, an adolescent waif who lives across the street in a home for orphans. Billy meets her on the roof, where she sells herself for a dollar. Their wretchedness underscores the hardscrabble quality of life in the Bronx in 1935. Once Billy begins to make his fortune with the Schultz gang, he returns to the old neighborhood in his fine new duds--only to feel completely out of place.
As a gang member, Billy witnesses the rabid excesses of Dutch and learns the quirks of his henchmen: Otto “Abbadabba” Berman, a mathematics wizard who becomes Billy’s mentor; Lulu Rosenkrantz, a gunman with a Neanderthal disposition; and Irving, who is utterly neat and precise even in the way he makes his bullet-holes in a target. What saves Billy from being totally dehumanized by violence and depravity in his exalted love for Miss Lola Drew Preston, Dutch’s bewitchingly lovely mistress. It is she who teaches Billy how to operate with class and style: She orders his clothes, takes him to the races in Saratoga, and generally takes up where Rebecca leaves off.
The narrative is fast-paced and as colorful as a big screen in Panavision. Doctorow exerts a masterful control over plot and dialogue by keeping the number of characters small and by dividing the action into four large blocks: the opening scenes in Manhattan and the Bronx, the rustic interlude in upstate Onondaga, the brief tryst with Lola in Saratoga, and the return to New York City, where Dutch meets his appropriately violent death. BILLY BATHGATE is not merely vintage Doctorow: It is a novel one will read and read again. Like any genuine work of art, it gives greater and greater pleasure with each successive encounter. In short, BILLY BATHGATE has all the makings of a classic.
America. CLX, May 13, 1989, p.457.
Baba, Minako. “The Young Gangster as Mythic American Hero: E. L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate.” MELUS 18 (Summer, 1993): 33-46. Baba explores the blending of fiction and history in Doctorow’s novel, which results in a mythic representation of the American gangster. She praises the book as a “gripping historical fantasy of a young American’s perilous journey.”
The Christian Science Monitor. March 22, 1989, p.13.
(The entire section is 1142 words.)