E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate

I don’t recall the last time a novel so instantaneously grabbed me, from the opening page, and held me in captivated, rapturous awe for 300 pages. E.L. Doctorow, who passed away in 2015, wrote Billy Bathgate in 1989, but it is set in 1930s New York, where bootlegging and organized crime have made a vicious and violent few extremely wealthy, in contrast to most of the rest of the city and country, still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression. Doctorow places us at the center of the action, inside the infamous Dutch Schultz gang, as seen through the eyes of a young, streetwise Irish boy apprenticed to the gang. In his former life, he was Billy Behan, son of a schizophrenic mother and absent father, but in the gang he is reborn, and therefore re-christened, as Billy Bathgate, named for the Bronx neighborhood in which he was born.

Doctorow wastes no time in capturing our attention. From the opening scene, we leave the city behind, joining the gang as they ride out into the rough waters of the East River, where they are preparing to drown a former member whose feet are encased in hardening cement. Our narrator-protagonist, Billy Bathgate, is as confused by what he is witnessing as we are, not having been informed of the gang’s murderous plans, but Doctorow’s masterful control of the tone and tempo of the writing alerts us to the ominous nature of the mission.

The wind was picking up too, and spray was flying up from the prow and wetting my face, I was holding the rail and pressing my back against the side of the cabin and beginning to feel the light head that comes with the realization that water is a beast of another planet, and with each passing moment it was drawing in my imagination a portrait of its mysterious powerful and endlessly vast animacy right there under the boat I was riding, and all the other boats of the world as well, which if they lashed themselves together wouldn’t cover an inch of its undulant and heaving hide.

This description immediately precedes Billy’s first glimpse of Abraham “Bo” Weinberg, who is taking off his shoes and rolling up his pants, about to become an unwilling sacrifice to the watery beast.

It was a stroke of genius on Doctorow’s part to tell the story of an infamous organized crime gang through the eyes of a child, a near-orphan with nothing to his name and the noble desire to make something of himself that he might take care of his afflicted mother. He is taken in by the “realm of high audacity” in which the gangsters move, by their bravado and their money and their disdain for the petty ordinariness of everyday existence. He first comes to their attention by juggling, catching the appreciation of the gang leader himself, Dutch Schultz, as he is inspecting one of his bootlegging warehouses. Dutch hands Billy a ten-dollar bill, a small fortune for a child in 1930s New York, in full view of a gang of envious orphans eager to take the money off him, and it is as if, from this moment on, Billy has been anointed:

Oh you miserable fucking louts, that I ever needed to attach my orphan self to your wretched company, you thieves of the five-and-ten, you poking predators of your own little brothers and sisters, you dumbbells, that you could aspire to a genius life of crime, with your dead witless eyes, your slack chins, and the simian slouch of your spines – fuck you forever, I consign you to tenement rooms and bawling infants, and sluggish wives and a slow death of incredible subjugation, I condemn you to petty crimes and mean rewards and vistas of cell block to the end of your days.

Here is the egotism and the ingrained sense of superiority that make so many of American literature’s boy heroes compelling, beginning with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, but there is real poetry in Billy’s language, and part of the joy of Billy Bathgate is following his growth from a street urchin of no stature to a valued member of a successful criminal gang – and then his subsequent alienation from their murderous violence, and his attempts to escape the lure of their lifestyle. “All I had to remember was what had gotten me to this point in the first place,” he tells us at one point, “the innermost resolve of my secret endowment. That must never change.” But how many crimes, how many casual murders, can a boy witness before even that inner endowment is irrevocably changed?

In its writing and its narrative construction, Billy Bathgate is masterful, a gripping historical novel, a vivid portrait of New York in the 1930s, and a bildungsroman worthy of comparison to Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher In The Rye.