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40 of 42 people found the following review helpful
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, are 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.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
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.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
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.

SWM
author of The King of Vinland's Saga
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on April 12, 2001
I recently finished Billy Bathgate, so the book is still fresh in my mind. I have to say, as a first-time reader of Doctorow, that I was not disappointed, and that I was definitely surprised. The surprise stemmed, probably, from the fact that I rarely read 'modern' authors. I find their work too cookie-cutter, lacking in imagery and effective language,extremely forgettable, and one dimensional. Well, Doctorow is none of these things. Personally, I don't think I will ever forget Billy Bathgate. The title character himself is too engaging to be forgotten, too understandable, human, and too deserving of just the right amounts of sympathy and exasperation. His narrative invokes memories of Holden Caulfield, Nick Carraway, and strangely enough, Dr. Watson. Doctorow peppers his text with delightful run-ons, sentence fragments, and old-fashioned American profanity. I say delightful because all three of these classic no-no's are incorporated perfectly into the words coming out of Billy's mouth and from his memory. Perfect grammar would be undesirable in this case, because Billy thinks in fragments and acts in run-ons. I think we would miss out on half of his personality and being if he didn't come across as a boy made out of the broken pieces of one big, dangling participle. Don't let reviews dissing the grammar deter you from reading this book, I suppose I'm trying to say. The imagery is beautiful, the descriptions (especially of people, but also of places, smells, buildings, scenes,) are sheer perfection. They hit the nail on the head. Sit back and watch the mental movie your mind will unfold for you. This is one of those books that will give you End-Of-Book-Withdrawal.
I'm very much looking forward to reading Doctorow's other works.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
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.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICEon December 31, 2005
Coming of age story meets historical fiction meets old timey true crime in this relatively absorbing tale of the waning months of legendary New York gangster Dutch Schultz. Set in 1934-35, the story is narrated by a poor, 15-year-old, Irish-Catholic dropout from the tenements of the East Bronx. Like all the other boys his age, Billy lives in awe of the city's big-time gangsters, and Schultz's money, charisma, and fame are powerful lures. Although Billy is fatherless and his mother is more than slightly unhinged, he's ambitious, and so manages to make himself useful as a gopher at Schultz's numbers-running headquarters, where he catches the eye of Otto Berman, Schultz's cerebral right-hand man.

As Schultz's small empire of booze, broads, numbers, and extortion starts to crumble under pressure from the feds and more powerful competitors, Billy evolves from mascot to trusted intimate -- especially after witnessing the Schultz's murder of one of his main henchmen in a scene that results in Schultz's appropriation of the man's moll as his own. The moll turns out to be a kind of young society dame out for kicks, and as the gang lies low in the upstate town of Onondaga, she and Billy develop a secret friendship that implausibly turns torridly sexual. What's nice about the book is that Billy isn't a thoughtless foot soldier, but understands Schultz's temperament and increasing instability, and is honest in tempering the glamorous side of the kingpin's with a clear view of his brutality and excesses. And though Billy can't see an immediate exit for himself (nor does he especially want one), he does recognize that if the woman doesn't leave, she's in great danger. The highlight of the book is his scheme to engineer her separation from Schultz without letting her, or anyone in the gang onto what he's doing.

Doctorow does an excellent job of showing the disintegration of the gang and of Schultz himself, as the inner circle stoically stands firm on what is clearly a sinking ship. In the final section, Schultz is under attack from special prosecutor Thomas Dewey (the future presidential candidate), and Billy is sent to follow him and work out a plan for his assassination. This sets the stage for a gripping ending which includes a classic gangland slaying, a meeting with Lucky Luciano, and Billy's attempt to make off with Schultz's rather substantial cash reserve. Which is not to say the book is a mere crime thriller -- there are strong running themes concerning identity and the American mythology of the self-made man. There's also Billy's quest for a father figure, not to mention his sexual awakening, loss of innocence, and more. Doctorow's prose is perhaps a little too restrained and the dialogue veers somewhat toward speechifying at times, but on the whole it reads well. The characterization is fairly vivid, although it's hard to stay away from the usual gangster and Depression-era stereotypes. Billy is somewhat problematic, a 15-year-old with altogether to much perception of the adult world around him. Of course, without this perception, there is no book, and this is a kind of necessary evil one comes across all too often in fiction narrated by teenagers and written by adults. It's a good book,but not a great one, and perhaps of greatest interest to those interested in New York of the mid-'30s.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
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.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on November 4, 2007
EL Doctrow's talent with language is a step or two or three or four beyond that of the average scrivener. And even of the somewhat above average scrivener. Most of us aspire to prose as good as his without ever quite achieving it. But sometimes in this book he is a bit undisciplined in the application of his talent, and gets himself in trouble as a result. It's evident right from the first chapter, when passages like this:

"He had to have planned it because when we drove onto the dock the boat was there and the engine was running and you could see the water churning up phosphorescence in the river, which was the only light there was because there was no moon, nor no electric light either in the shack where the dockmaster should have been sitting, nor on the boat itself, and certainly not from the car, yet everyone knew where everything was...."

...and this:

"But anyway I wasn't thinking of any of this at the time, it was just something I had in me I could use if I had to, not even an idea but an instinct waiting in my brain in case I ever needed it, or else why would I have leapt lightly over the rail..."

...establish his protagonist Billy Bathgate as a capable, savvy, and colloquially eloquent street urchin. Then, a few pages later, we get this:

"I think now that the key to grace or elegance in any body, male or female, is the length of the neck, that when the neck is long several conclusions follow, such as a proper proportion of weight to height, a natural pride of posture, a gift for eye contact, a certain nimbleness of the spine and length of stride, all in all a kind of physical gladness in movement leading to athletic competence or a love for dancing. Whereas the short neck predicts a host of metaphysical afflictions, any one of which brings about the ineptitude for life that creates art, invention, great fortunes, and the murderous rages of the disordered spirit."

Those of you familiar with Mark Twain's hilarious evisceration of James Fenimore Cooper's literary offenses in "The Deerslayer" will recognize the problem. For those who aren't, think specifically of Twain's Rule #7:

"They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven- dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the 'Deerslayer' tale."

Doctrow violates this rule too. Not as egregiously as Cooper, and not within one paragraph, and from the bottom up rather than the top down, but he still violates it. I'd have given Billy Bathgate a four or even five star rating if he'd been more consistent in his management of character voice.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Its 1930's New York, at the height of gangsterdom,and young Billy with his pals from the Bronx hang out around Dutch Schultz's beer depot,hoping to get a glimpse of the big time mobster and dreaming of becoming part of the gang.Idly juggling,Billy catches the attention and good humour of Dutch who gives him a ten dollar bill for the entertainment.From then on,Billy starts ingratiating himself with the gang.He becomes a good luck symbol and gets to know their inner workings and murders.But Dutch is on the slide, and when he and his gang's power is erroded by crusading DA's and the competition,no one knows where Dutch hid his cash....except perhaps Billy Bathgate.
A hugely rich tale where anything and everything is described in poetic detail-from a negro chef at Dutch's night spot,who smokes and drops ash on the steaks he is cooking(his one and only appearance!) to Bo Weinberg being given a pair of concrete slippers and thrown from the stern of a boat-all in the unmistakable voice of our narrator, Billy Bathgate.
Doctorow captures the corruption and lawlessness that was mob ridden New York and how it spreads its influence in every walk of life.Doctorow's New York is packed with memorable characters from the hoods Lulu,Irving and Mr Berman to Billy's friend Arnold Garbage.
Packed full of prose,this is a book to take time out with to fully enjoy.I tried a few pages when I was tired out after work and wasn't getting that joyous impact that I got when fully relaxed with time to read.So I waited so I could build up in my mind Doctorow's wonderful images of 30's New York. Doctorow is easily one of America's great writers.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Dutch Schultz was a notoriously violent, murdering New York gangster in the 1930's. Young Billy Bathgate rides his coattails on a downward spiral as Dutch by the time period of this book is a man gasping for breath and clawing for air as New York City and the infamous DA Thomas Dewey are closing in seeking to destroy Dutch and his dwindling gangster empire.

This is a fictionalized account much like "Legs," by William Kennedy. "Leg's," tale was dished up by Jack Diamond's lawyer and this tale is witnessed by a young boy, Billy Bathgate, who hooks up with Schultz's mob as an errand boy and tries to make his own way upward in the New York City mob.

There is a lot to like in this novel. The portrayal of Dutch Schultz is vivid and brimming with descriptions of a loud mad man with a violent temper surrounded by his faithful (pretty much) henchmen. Dutch was off the cuff and there is more than one grisly scene of him beating or killing a man because he just could not control his temper and the rest of the gang always had to contend with the aftermath of his rampages. Billy Bathgate is just a kid witnessing the ins and out of gangster life trying to pull his weight so he can become just like them. It's a good thing he is smart, otherwise he'd not last long, but as is the case he is a great character that this story follows through a suffering city full of heartbreak and triumph.

The members of Dutch's gang are all present, in one form or another, such as: Otto (Abbadabba) Biederman, Dutch's financial planner who was a complete whiz with numbers, Lulu Rosenkrantz, the cold blooded killer, Michael O'Hanley, the driver, Bo Weinburg, who's unforgettable role starts off the novel, and many more characters who graced Depression Era New York City with blood, guts, and glory.

This is an engaging tale of rags to riches, gun battles and coldbooded ruthless determination during a time when men could rise to power with a gang of devotees and a tommy gun to create his own reality and his own horrific downfall. If you enjoy reading about gangster hideouts, gun molls, illegal gambits and murdering gangsters in New York City during the depression, you'll enjoy this story. Equally memorable is Dutch's soliliquy which in history was a memorable speech that enthralled the media and G men alike with it's stream of consciousness rambling as though it contained important clues to the inside workings of a self-made mobster's livlihood and fortunes and the crimes that were committed to gain them. This alone definately makes the book worth an afternoon's read.

This is a remarkably readable book. E.L Doctrow's talents are present on every page and in every gruesome or otherwise depiction of Dutch Schultz's and Billy Bathgate's engrossing story.
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