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Billy Bathgate is an important American novel in it’s portrayal of one young man’s evolution from boyhood to maturity. The novel is about a fifteen year old boy that gets taken under the wing of Dutch Schultz, a 1930’s gangster trying to keep a hold of his diminishing empire. As the novel unfolds, so does the rising maturity of the tough young man introduced to us as Billy Bathgate. Billy finds himself in situations that most of us never see in our whole life. In difference to the reactions that most people would have in these situations, Billy learns from them in order to better his role in the crime family. It is for these reasons that the young fifteen year old boy quickly develops into a man.
The novel was written in 1989 by a contemporaneous author named E. L. Doctorow. Doctorow was born in 1931 and fantasized about the 1930’s crime life as a child. He is an American novelist, short story writer, editor, essayist, as
well as a dramatist. His works include Big as Life, The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, Loon Lake, World’s Fair, , Lives of the Poets: Six Stories and a Novella, a play entitled Drinks Before Dinner and of course his most recent work Billy Bathgate. Billy Bathgate is Doctorow’s most famous piece of
literature. In fact, the book grasped so much attention that it was later made into a movie with an all star cast including Bruce Willis, Dustin Hoffman and Nicole Kidman. Although the film left out a lot of detail, as so many movies based on novels tend to do, it was interesting to see the elaborate detail given to the clothing, attitude, and backdrop that so accurately reflect the inner city Bronx in the 1930’s. Doctorow’s explicit, graphic detail show his almost fascination with crime and murder. He almost glamorizes the life of crime in Billy Bathgate.
Although Billy Bathgate was written quite recently, there is an influx of critical opinion reflecting the admiration of Doctorow’s artistry in literature. “Critics
marveled at Doctorow’s vivid description of New York City in the 1930’s and of the horrific murders committed by Dutch
and his gang.”(CLC volume 65 Author Overview) “Billy Bathgate is intended as pure myth, a sort of Robin Hood for grown-ups. Other novels may be more psychologically subtle or emotionally resonant. But few of those celebrate, as well as Billy Bathgate does, the raw, sometimes amoral
energy of life, so often feared by the timid and the primly virtuous…Billy Bathgate, with it’s driving rhythms and hair-trigger images, is as bracing as a shot of Dutch Schultz’s bootleg scotch.” (Bemrose p. 58-9) Having read the first chapter of the novel, any reader would know exactly what Mr. Bemrose is talking about. The novel kind of grabs you and dares you to put it down because it knows that you can’t. Bemrose continues by saying “Billy Bathgate is a celebration of life as well, particularly the life of youth, with it’s boundless resilience and illusions of immortality.” (Bemrose 58-9) “He (Doctorow) is interested not in the abstractions of corruption, but in the simple, emotional things of the criminal existence-what it feels like to be a gangster, what
moral and psychological universe one inhabit. It’s day to
day mechanics and, perhaps most importantly, how one survives a life of violence. Thus, underneath the soft prose of Billy’s voice, we are given glimpses of the
murderous danger of the criminal life, and how the people who live it, particularly it’s leaders, keep their heads above water.” (Clifford p.29)
Doctorow accomplishes the task of recreating the Bronx in the 1930’s with perfection. Everything from the attitude of the depression to the realness of the gang scene is more than vividly expressed throughout the novel. It’s almost like Doctorow paints the picture of the 1930’s in such an explicit manner that the reader can smell the tension of financial burden in the air. “Critics marveled at Doctorow’s vivid descriptions of New York City in The 1930’s…” (CLC vol. 65 Author Overview) “Doctorow’s novel makes full and loving use of the manners, the artifacts, the savors and the rhythms of the 30’s. He is marvelously skillful at getting into the thoughts and the
lingo of the time.” (Eder p.3) Doctorow doesn’t just bring
us the thirties, he brings us the thirties that nobody else will. In the depression era, there were many things that
were done for money because there was no alternative. Three of these things were theft, bootlegging, and gangs, all of which seemed to come hand in hand with another. Billy and his adolescent friends are common thieves until Dutch
Schultz takes Billy under his wing. Dutch Schultz himself
was on a bootleg run when he met Billy. As far as the gangs, well, the whole book is about gangs. “In composing Billy Bathgate out of a boy’s divided loyalties, E.L.
Doctorow has restored to The memory of American culture the era of the Great Depression it has tried to forget. In recovering the cultural legacy of the Depression era, Doctorow has produced a book that promises to remain as permanent an addition to it’s culture as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it’s cultural predecessor.”(Pease p.458-9)
Doctorow does a spectacular job in recreating the 30’s in his latest novel Billy Bathgate.
Doctorow also does an excellent job in creating characters that the reader can enjoy and fear. Billy can be
characterized as a greedy, decieving,and sneaky character in the novel. Billy continues to portray these qualities all the way to the end of the novel. Doctor’s characters are so well created that the reader can get a feel of who they really are.
Billy is a very dynamic character in his ability to display so many qualities throughout the novel. One of these qualities is his need for greed. In fact the only reason he even gets involved in the gang scene is because dollar signs start rolling in his eyes. Billy learns from Schmaltz’s accountant, Abbadabba Berman, that money is the only thing that is important. Berman slips Billy money here and there and makes him a student of financial importance which assist in Billy’s greedy ways. This greed for money eventually leads to Billy stealing Dutch Schultz’s fortune at the end of the book. At the end of the novel, the narrator (Billy)
says that he was going to use the money to start his own crime family but never really reveals whether or not he did.
He does reveal, however, that he used some of the money to get an Ivy League education that would explain Billy’s immense vocabulary while narrating the novel. Billy is so greedy that he watches Abbadabba Berman use the safe in order to memorize the safe code in effort to back stab his fatherly figure Schultz. It is plain to see that everything Billy does throughout the novel exemplifies his passionate greed.
Billy also demonstrates that he is deceiving in his own selfish ways. For example, when he steals Dutch Schultz’s money, he does not even think twice about all the things that Schultz did for him. Schultz took Billy off the streets and made him a wealthy young man in position to learn everything that Schultz and his gang can teach him. Billy did not even think twice about that when he slept with his mentor’s lover. That is about as deceiving as a person can get. You do not just sleep with your mentor’s woman unless you have a serious death wish. If Billy would have been caught, the police would have found him wearing cement boots at the bottom of the ocean along side Bo Weinberg. This
shows that Billy displays courage as well.
The mere fact that a fifteen year old boy would get mixed up in an organized crime family such as that of Dutch Schultz, shows that Billy is a courageous. At fifteen years old, Billy was watching people die at gun point. Speaking of being brave, he slept with Schult’z woman. Billy was well aware of the things that Dutch Schultz did to people who did simple thing like lie to him. He watched people die for nothing but Schultz’s suspicion that they might back stab him. For Billy to sleep with Dutch Schultz’s woman shows that he is both brave and courageous. Billy was beyond well aware of what Schultz was capable of because he has seen it with his own eyes. Billy was also well aware that the gang leader would not even think twice about killing someone who was disrespectful enough to sleep with his woman. Despite all that, Billy continued to do things as he pleased and not get caught. In a way, one could say that he learned all these unadmirable characteristics by none other than Dutch Schultz himself.
His mentor taught him everything that he knew. On the other hand, Billy was also well aware that Dutch Schultz would not allow anyone to disrespect him and continue to breath on his own. Towards the end of the book, Billy becomes aware of Schultz’s plan to kill his woman because she was a witness to the murder of Bo Wienberg who was her last lover. Billy heard this by ease dropping on one of Schultz’s conversations that was not intended for Billy’s ears. Billy was also trusted by Schultz to watch over Ms. Preston because he was only fifteen. Schultz would have never thought that the two of them would have a love affair. Because Billy promised Bo Wienberg that he would watch over her, he spoke with her homosexual husband and had her whisked away before Schultz had a chance to have her killed. This is yet another prime example of his disloyalty to Dutch Schultz, and his bravery despite what could have happened to him. All of these action also show that Billy is Sneaky no matter what the consequence may be. Let’s face it, despite all these actions, Billy never gets caught. I feel that E. L. Doctorow does an extremely impressive job in creating characterization that keeps the reader so eager to anticipate what Billy’s next move is that when they fall
asleep with the book on their face, they dream about it. Billy is an extremely dynamic character that demonstrates qualities such as his greed, deceitfulness, and his cunning ability to manage to not get caught with his sneaky ways.
Opinion of the novel
Although I have not read many novels, I was amazingly impressed with E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate. As soon as you read the first chapter, you become as addicted as to it as Robert Downey Jr. is to cocaine. As ridiculous as that may sound, anyone who reads the novel would certainly agree. The plot, characterization, and explicit detail given to the murders of Dutch Schultz and his gang make this the absolute most interesting novel that I have ever had the pleasure of reading. It is one of those novels that you just can not put down if you try. Billy Bathgate is a vital American novel in it’s portrayal of a boy’s journey to become a man
Bemrose, John. “Growing Up in Gangland.” in
Maclean’s Magazine. March 1989:
58-9. Vol. 102, No 12
Clifford, Andrew. “True-ish Crime Stories.” in
The Listener. September 1989: p.29.
vol. 122, no. 3131.
Eder, Richard. “Siege Perilous in the Court of
Dutch Schultz.” in Los Angeles Times Book
Review. March 1989. p. 3.
Kazin, Alfred. “Huck in the Bronx.” in The New
Republic. March 1989. Pp.40-2.
Leonard, John. “Bye Bye Billy.” in The Nation. April
1989. pp. 40-2. Vol. 200 no. 12
Pease, Donald E. “Billy Bathgate- a Review”
America. May 1989. P. 458-59
Rubin, Merle. “Bathgate: Technique Surpasses Tale.”
The Christian Science Monitor. March 1989.
Rushdie, Salman. “Billy the Streetwise Kid.” The
Observer. September 1989. P.51
Tonkin, Boyd. “A Round Table Story.” New Statesman
& Society. September 1989. P. 37
Tyler, Anne. “An American Boy in Gangland.” The New
York Times Book Review. February 1989. P. 1, 46
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