BILLY BATHGATE by E.L. Doctorow
Kirkus Star

BILLY BATHGATE

A Novel

KIRKUS REVIEW

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. 22nd, 1988
ISBN: 0812981170
Page count: 329pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 1988




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