on August 23, 2003
Its not easy to grow up without a role model. This book is about the need for a boy, Billy, trying to find himself while growing up in a poor neighborhood in New York. Billy's character was a symbol similar to the character Holden Caulfield in the book Catcher and the Rye but the difference between the two characters was that Billy was a little bit less in control of his destiny and was led on more in this story.
The character Billy becomes wrapped up in a gang led by an alcohol smuggler, Dutch Schultz, by doing menial tasks. But also he witnesses something brutal with the execution of one of Dutch's betrayers. Doctorow uses the naivety of Billy to accentuate the emotional scenes in the book and the execution in the beginning is merely one example.
Billy is also expressed as an outcast from society trying to find himself a feel like he belongs somewhere. And that is how he gets wrapped up in the gang and never thinks twice about it. He most importantly wants Dutch to like him for its own sake. Other characters in the book are in the gang for ulterior motives from the accountant to the grunts and drivers, that's to be expected. But for Billy, he just wants to be liked.
I thought that the scenes were pretty enjoyable. It's similar to the book of "The Catcher and the Rye" and the famous film "The Graduate" starring Dustin Hoffman who I believe is in the movie version of this book. Reading this book will make you think like a teenager and might even bring back some memories you might have of being unsure of yourself or wanting to be accepted within a group. It should take a week to a couple of weeks depending on the time in your reading sessions.
on April 21, 2002
Rarely does an award-winning work of literature read as easily as a Michael Crichton paperback. If you are in the mood for a quick read, you would normally turn to the pop fiction selections on your bookshelf and find something mindless and plot driven. If you are looking for a higher level of quality, such as a Pen/Faulker Award winner, you perhaps consciously prepare yourself for the added effort that reading a meaningful, elaborate, character-driven novel entails. You will almost certainly be rewarded for the effort, but it is an effort nonetheless. But in Billy Bathgate, E.L. Doctorow blends the depth, substance, and beauty of a quality work of literature with the pace, suspense, and rhythm of a mafia thriller. The result is an imminently readable novel that is also an important contribution to 20th century fiction.
The plot itself bears much resemblance to countless other mafia stories, filled with shady characters, ruthless hit men, brutal murders, bribing of government officials, and steamy love affairs. The uniqueness lies in the fact that the narrator is a 15-year-old boy, Billy, eager to earn the trust of Dutch Schultz, the mafia kingpin, and his gang. He quickly progresses from simple errand boy, buying cigarettes and coffee, to a position of modest responsibility in this intriguing world of crime. Through Billy's somewhat naïve, innocent eyes, we observe Dutch as he manages his empire, carries out hits against his enemies and disloyal employees, and struggles to evade the attempts of law enforcement to bring him down. The story takes us from New York City to Onondoga, a small town where Dutch's trial eventually takes place. And in the process, we witness the growth of a boy into a young man as he enters a world of big money, intense loyalty, and vindictive violence. Throughout, Doctorow's beautiful prose, gift for understatement, and masterful sense of timing create a remarkable novel that will linger in the reader's mind long after the last page has been read.
on October 28, 2001
An excellent tale of an aspiring young street tough's initiation into the dangers and excitment of the gangster life, circa the 1930's, this book captures its era and the personalities it portrays with an astonishing verve and veracity. The tone and "voice" feel right, speeding along brilliantly, while the tale, of a young fellow's awakening from gawking naivete to a certain street-smart cynicism, rings remarkably true. If there is a reason for reading fiction today, BILLY BATHGATE offers the perfect example: it is a means for carrying us into places and times now long gone which still may resonate in the contemporary soul. While the hero is a trifle too cloying for my tastes and seems rather more inured to the moral chaos he sees around him than his apparent sensibility suggests he should be, this is, finally, a small fault to find with such a deflty turned tale. Progressing from a 15-year old loner on street corners to mascot of the Dutch Schultz gang, as they hurtle down the spiral of their final decline, the self-named Billy Bathgate insinuates himself into the precarious confidences of this remakably unstable crew. Schultz, himself, the erratic gang leader, has already slipped into a dangerous condition of paranoia and isolation and his hangers-on live from moment to moment in fearful unease, unable to check the excesses of their leader or to separate themselves from him. Billy finds their life oddly mesmerizing as he gets sucked into witnessing outbursts of murder and coldly planned gangland executions, until his role brings him into the orbit of a flighty, if beautiful, society doll. Then a burgeoning adolescent crush seems to awaken him to what he has done and, as in a dream, he begins to seek a way out. The ending comes swiftly and will surprise those who have not yet seen the movie (which captures much, but not all, of the written tale). And yet the wrap-up is a little bit of a let-down (rather too pat, actually) and I longed to know more of who and what this Billy turned out to be. Yet, on balance, this was a fine novel and evidence, indeed, for the solid reputation Doctorow has earned.
on July 10, 2001
Set in 1935, "Billy Bathgate" tells the story of how its title character, a 15-year-old street kid from the Bronx, apprentices himself to one of the most formidable gangsters in New York. Thomas E. Dewey, the special public prosecutor of New York who later was to run for president against Roosevelt and Truman, is making a name for himself by going after mob figures, and Dutch Schultz is one of his prime targets. Dutch's gang is involved in the operation of breweries, nightclubs, and labor unions, and they're not shy about disposing of their enemies through symbolically gruesome means, as we see what happens to two scab window washers. To evade taxes they launder their money through a small town upstate called Onondaga.
Billy becomes attracted to the flamboyant gang and slowly ingratiates his way inside by doing small jobs for them. Besides the charismatic but tragic Dutch, other members include the friendly Otto Berman, who loves playing with numbers and becomes Billy's fatherly mentor, the brutish muscle Lulu, the silently perceptive Irving, and Mickey the driver. Billy narrates in the first person with a unique voice, using run-on sentences that display his enthusiasm to be playing with the big boys.
The novel begins "in medias res" with a scene of one of Dutch's disloyal henchmen being fitted for a pair of cement shoes. The man's girlfriend, a voluptuous high-society blonde with a complicated private life, becomes Dutch's moll, and Dutch gives Billy the assignment to keep her company when the gang hides out in Onondaga for the summer. Eventually Billy realizes that her life might be in danger as a possible witness to her ex-boyfriend's murder, and one of the best parts of the novel is his clever plan to get her out of harm's way. In the novel's tense climax, Dutch plots to assassinate Dewey, an event which, if carried out, would certainly change the course of history as we know it.
As in "Ragtime," Doctorow is eminently able to evoke a romantic but realistic New York City of a time long past that perhaps was quieter but not necessarily more innocent sexually or morally. Doctorow obviously enjoys using the city and figures from history as a canvas on which to create his fiction, and his joy is infectious to the reader. I certainly wish I could have spent a teenage summer having Billy's experiences. Invoking the excitement of a boyhood adventure in an entirely original milieu, written with maturity and panache, "Billy Bathgate" is a novel Mark Twain would have saluted.
on December 31, 2015
If there is a perfect novel, E.L.Doctorow's majestic and breath-taking Billy Bathgate is it. Others have noted the "too pat" tie up with the narrator's life, which is justified, yet taken in its entirety this is a literary masterpiece.
From the treatment of the chilling, fathomless rubbing of once trigger-man Bo Weinberg to the not-so clandestine courting and besmirchment of the boss's vacuous if gorgeous moll to the final miserable moments of the brutal Dutchman Schultz himself, Doctorow treats with humanity-impossibly!-the broken characters of this work and that sad age.
New York was full of broken dreams in the 1930s, just as it is to this very day. And crime is nothing if not the pursuit of redemption by the supposedly irredeemable, however improbable, but Doctorow's masterful renditions of historical gangsters resonates with so much vivid texture and of such blazing intensity that resisting hypnotic immersion in Billy's rotten and doomed world is all but impossible.
So make a call to your bookie about that nagging if impossible tip on the trifecta, browse the rejects in the wares of Arnold Garbage for any interesting if malfunctioning finds and, of course, have a satisfying double-take of sweet Rebecca on the roof of the orphanage, then settle in for a few nights of entrancing otherworldly bliss.
This is by and large just about as perfect a novel as can be had, written by a master in the full splendor of his ability.
on March 17, 2002
I've only read two of Doctorow's books, this one and _The Book of Daniel_, and this novel is about as far from daniel as you can get (though both are excellent). It's an excellent story about a boy coming of age in the 20s and 30s as a sort of member of Dutch Shultz's gang. He learns lifes lessons from these men. Doctorow's prose is lyrical, a sort of irony when you put the beautiful language Doctorow uses with the violence and moral ambiguity of the characters. This is a great culmination of Doctorow's work.
on October 12, 2002
An engaging story of young "Billy Bathgate," who is enamored with the local Bronx gangsters in the 1930's. Here are his adventures and sometimes his doubts in trying to become a part of the team. E. L. Doctorow is a master at descriptions of people and locations. They leave you almost able to smell the surroundings! The ending was not predictable - you don't know if Billy will or won't end up a gangster himself. I recommend that you read the book and see for yourself!
on July 15, 1999
I picked up Billy Bathgate expecting your typical gangster novel. Guns, molls, bullets, blood, etc. What I found was a really sweet story about a kid who falls in love with Dutch Schultz's girlfriend and ends up saving her life. That's the spine of the novel. That's it's heart. There's a lot of exciting, wonderful things mixed in there, but that's the story. And it is absolutley beautiful and stirring. Read it.
on April 13, 1999
I know it seems odd to refer to a "gangster" novel as "beautiful," but Billy Bathgate is just that. Gorgeous imagery, writing more poetry than prose, with beautiful human touches that stand outside the storyline itself, much like Nabokov's work. It's a great page turner, to boot.
on October 4, 1998
E.L. Doctorow excels in his writing to form a perfectly wonderful book. Billy Bathgate is a glorious story of a young man and his experience in organized crime. Truly a classic!