Through the historical realist novel Billy Bathgate, E. L. Doctorow delivers a fable of a young man’s initiation into the world, his process of disillusion and education, against the background of a 1930’s crime story. The novel begins in the middle of the story with a scene, both comic and sad, in which Bo Weinberg sits on a tugboat. The trousers of his evening dress are rolled up so that his feet can rest in a tub of cement, waiting for it to dry. Afterward, he will be thrown overboard. Billy witnesses this act of retribution and brutality, and it serves as a reader’s introduction to the events that follow.
The novel contains a number of themes common to many of Doctorow’s novels. One is the search for the absent father and the need for a mentor who will help the protagonist achieve success. The novel inverts the conventions of Horatio Alger’s stories, in which luck and honest hard work allow the hero to succeed. Billy gains wealth, but it is wealth that he has not earned and that was amassed through others’ criminal acts. As is true of The Book of Daniel (1971), Loon Lake (1980), and World’s Fair (1985)—Doctorow’s other books that treat the 1930’s—Billy Bathgate uses a fable-like plot to explore the sources and pitfalls of success in America.
Additionally, the character of Billy acts as a surrogate for the writer. He is an observer, a shaper of the narrative, and the one who understands the larger issues that are obscure to the other characters. Through Billy, the novel explores the confluence of the literary and the historical. It examines the ways in which literature can present history and the ways in which history shapes literature.
Doctorow once observed that when Ernest Hemingway wrote a novel he would implant it in geography. It would be equally true to observe of Doctorow that when he writes a novel he implants it in history. Billy Bathgate is historical on several levels. It takes place during the Great Depression, when the United States was experiencing a catastrophic economic downturn and ordinary citizens lost their...
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