Top positive review
Letters and numbers
on October 27, 2003
BILLY BATHGATE is E.L. Doctrow's poignant look at Depression era gangsterism through the eyes of the young boy after whom the book is named. Much to Doctrow's credit, there is no sentimentalizing or romanticizing of criminals here. Almost legendary gangster, Dutch Schultz, who befriends Billy, is depicted clearly as a vicious, sadistic thug teetering on the edge of insanity.
Although it is the Dutchman who takes in the boy, Billy is drawn to Dutch's moll sexually, and to the gang's bookkeeper, Otto Berman, emotionally. Otto is the real key to the book. Billy, like Johnson's Boswell, is drawn to the accountant and his philosophy. Broken down, Otto explains to the boy that things like love, loyalty, knowledge, and spirit are meaningless--none of them can be proven. They are all bound by words. To Otto, words are just words. Numbers, however, is the only true language. One and one will always be two. Numbers never lie. (Spoken like a true accountant.) This has an enormous impact on a young boy whose mother is one step away from the nuthouse, and whose father took off years earlier.
I gave this book four stars because I had just finished re-reading RAGTIME, and this came up a little short. On the other hand, maybe RAGTIME was too high a standard to hold it up to. In any event, this is not your typical gangster novel, as I hope this review has made apparent. It is a complex and profound book and should satisfy the most literary appetite.
Rocco Dormarunno, author of The Five Points.