As the title suggests, the main focus of the novel is the education of Billy Bathgate. In this fast-paced adventure novel, which takes quick tours of the Bronx, upstate New York, Saratoga, and the docks of Manhattan, Doctorow supplies the color and the feel of the 1930’s. As Billy prospers and gets to know these different worlds, he finds it impossible to return as he was to his old neighborhood. He is immediately perceived as a different person. He dresses differently, carries himself differently, and has a consciousness of a world that extends far beyond the Bathgate Avenue from which he derives his assumed name. Billy becomes, in other words, a self-invented figure, transcending his origins not only in the actions he narrates but in his very language, which is at once colloquial and formal, a blend of popular and sophisticated vocabulary that precisely captures the boy and the man who has become the narrator of this novel. In this quintessential American story, Doctorow has managed yet another stunning version of the hero’s quest for identity and success.
For Billy survives the wreck of Schultz’s gang and, like Herman Melville’s Ishmael, lives to tell the tale. Billy hides Schultz’s fortune, goes back to school, graduates from an Ivy League college, and becomes an Army officer in World War II and later a business entrepreneur—an inconceivable career in Dutch Schultz’s world.
Billy is also like Melville’s Ishmael in that he...
(The entire section is 459 words.)