BILLY BATHGATE

A NOVEL

As in World's Fair, Doctorow returns once again to his impeccably rendered 1930's. but this time in order to chronicle, with a detail and color and immediacy that make celluloid seem almost clumsy and unnecessary, the decline and fall of the legendary New York gangster Dutch Schultz. Billy Behan, a fatherless Irish-Jewish kid from the East Bronx, is 15 when he first has the luck one day to see Schultz in the flesh—and the greater luck briefly to catch the illustrious mobster's attention. Determined that he'll somehow infiltrate his way into the inner sanctums of the gang ("whatever my life was going to be in this world it would have something to do with Mr. Schultz"), Billy reveals an ingenuity and Oliver-Twist-like daring that accomplish his ends. In the next few months of his life he will graduate from lowly coffee-fetcher for the hoodlums (there's Schultz, his brains Abba-dabba Berman, his hit-man Lulu Rosenkrantz, his driver Mickey, his faithful aide Irving) to pickup man, to trusted lookout and information-getter, and finally—just before the gang is killed the following October in a surprise shootout in a bar in Newark-to full-fledged and salaried member of the Schultz mob. On the way to that bloody night (in 1935) in a dingy back room, plenty will happen to this American-Dickensian Billy Behan (a.k.a. Billy Bathgate) and around him—he'll see a man sent into the deep Atlantic with his feet in a tub of cement, there will be a long waiting period in an upstate hotel, a rigged trial for tax evasion, more murders, and even a dangerous, passionate liaison between young Billy and Schultz's current (and very rich) moll, complete with a few days in horse-crazy Saratoga in August. Back in the city, the gang finds itself under mounting pressures (not only are other gangs, but so is special prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey moving in on them), and when the dreadful shootout comes, only Billy, Ishmael-like, lives to tell the tale—and to provide a denoument that may or may not convince every reader. What could have been merely another round of nostalgia-drenched mobster romancing earns a claim, by end, to a genuine depth, and, formed by the magical skill of Doctorow's incomparable past-painting hands, the book simply pulls and pulls and pulls.

Pub Date: Feb. 22, 1988

ISBN: 0812981170

Page Count: 329

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: March 24, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1988

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A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

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HOMEGOING

A novel of sharply drawn character studies immersed in more than 250 hard, transformative years in the African-American diaspora.

Gyasi’s debut novel opens in the mid-1700s in what is now Ghana, as tribal rivalries are exploited by British and Dutch colonists and slave traders. The daughter of one tribal leader marries a British man for financial expediency, then learns that the “castle” he governs is a holding dungeon for slaves. (When she asks what’s held there, she’s told “cargo.”) The narrative soon alternates chapters between the Ghanans and their American descendants up through the present day. On either side of the Atlantic, the tale is often one of racism, degradation, and loss: a slave on an Alabama plantation is whipped “until the blood on the ground is high enough to bathe a baby”; a freedman in Baltimore fears being sent back South with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act; a Ghanan woman is driven mad from the abuse of a missionary and her husband’s injury in a tribal war; a woman in Harlem is increasingly distanced from (and then humiliated by) her husband, who passes as white. Gyasi is a deeply empathetic writer, and each of the novel’s 14 chapters is a savvy character portrait that reveals the impact of racism from multiple perspectives. It lacks the sweep that its premise implies, though: while the characters share a bloodline, and a gold-flecked stone appears throughout the book as a symbolic connector, the novel is more a well-made linked story collection than a complex epic. Yet Gyasi plainly has the talent to pull that off: “I will be my own nation,” one woman tells a British suitor early on, and the author understands both the necessity of that defiance and how hard it is to follow through on it.

A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

Pub Date: June 7, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-94713-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2016

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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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