The long first sentence of Billy Bathgate launches right into the excitement of a scene in which Dutch Schultz is disposing of a disloyal associate, Bo Weinberg. The setting is described from the point-of-view of fifteen-year-old Billy Bathgate, the novel’s narrator, who is impressed with the smooth running of the Dutchman’s criminal enterprise. A car drives up to a dark dock and without using any light or making a sound Schultz’s crew gets on the boat with Bo and his girl, Drew Preston. Schultz’s control over the situation is awesome and inspiring for the young boy, who has been given the honor of running errands and performing other chores for the famous gang. He becomes their mascot and good-luck charm.
The style of the narrative is not that of a fifteen-year-old, for it is clear that Billy is remembering his past and recapturing the sense of adventure he had in hanging out with gangsters. As the reviewer in Time magazine puts it, “Billy’s language—breathy, breakneck, massing phrases into great cumulus sentences that rumble with coming rough weather—is totally unlike the short syncopated rhythms of Ragtime” (1975), Doctorow’s brilliantly successful novel about turn-of-the-century America. Billy Bathgate, chosen by The New York Times Book Review as one of the Best Books of 1989, is closer in spirit to Doctorow’s World’s Fair (1985), which is about a boy (Edgar) growing up in the Bronx, although Billy is far more daring than Edgar, a child much more settled in his neighborhood and preoccupied with his family.
Doctorow handles exquisitely the feeling of an adult remembering his adolescent self and the sheer excitement of being privy to the most secret counsels of criminals. Billy describes, in fascinating detail, the process by which Bo’s feet are encased in concrete. Facing the torture of drowning, Bo taunts Schultz, hoping to provoke his famous temper so that Schultz will shoot him quickly rather than make him suffer the agony of a slow death. Schultz, however, keeps calm while Weinberg retails instances of Schultz’s violent and ungiving nature. Schultz takes his revenge by appropriating Bo’s mistress, Drew Preston.
Billy fears but is also fascinated by Schultz’s violence, for Schultz cuts a great figure in the world, with minions to serve him and women to fawn over him. Billy’s Irish mother has occasional periods of dementia (pushing a baby carriage around full of junk such as broken eggshells) and his Jewish father long ago abandoned his family. Schultz obviously provides a glamorous alternative to this grim life, and the gang a surrogate family for the neglected boy. Billy is on his own in the East Bronx with no prospects of a better life until the Dutchman sees him juggling on the street and takes a shine to him, eventually calling Billy his “pro-to-jay.” Billy is, in Schultz’s words, “a capable boy.” Praise from the gangster and inclusion in the gang’s activities make Billy feel important. His eager willingness to learn from the gang and to accept any assignment without complaint earns for him special marks of favor.
Schultz has a way of utterly changing the face of things, and for a long time working for him has a fairy-tale quality to it. Billy is enchanted by the sheer magic of the way Schultz gets things done. No sooner is Bo Weinberg overboard with his cement overshoes than Schultz is making love to Drew Preston—a socialite who is fascinated, for a while, by his presence and energy. She even accompanies him to Onondaga in upstate New York, where Schultz takes over a town, plying the locals with gifts, and setting up a cozy atmosphere in preparation for what he rightly expects will be a favorable jury verdict in the case the government...
(The entire section is 1549 words.)