E. L. Doctorow, the celebrated chronicler of America (Ragtime, The Book of Daniel), opens his new novel, Billy Bathgate, with a murder scene as chilling as any in recent fiction. Dutch Schultz, the Depression-era gangster who is one of the book’s main characters, has decided to eliminate a disloyal gang member called Bo Weinberg. Schultz takes Weinberg on a night boat ride out of New York City harbor into the open Atlantic, where he orders him at gunpoint to stand in a basin of wet cement. Then, while the cement is hardening, he takes Weinberg’s girlfriend, Drew Preston, into a nearby cabin—apparently to rape her. The two-pronged torture is highly effective. Weinberg, who can face his own death at the bottom of the Atlantic with some equanimity, is completely unmanned by the attack on Drew. By the end of the chapter, he can only moan for his mother and beg Schultz’s henchmen to shoot him—an act of mercy that they steadfastly refuse to perform.
Doctorow describes that event—and several others like it—with a kind of surgical exactness, an exquisite attention to detail that reveals how much his imagination is galvanized by the nearness of violent death. Like another American writer before him, Ernest Hemingway, Doctorow frequently depends on the charge inherent in depictions of physical danger to keep his images bright and his long, lyrical sentences taut and clean. The book’s narrator, Billy Bathgate, describes Bo Weinberg’s death with a vividness that permeates the whole novel. Billy misses nothing, right to the last moment when all that can be seen of Bo above the surface of the Atlantic is “the shot white cuffs and the pale hands reaching for heaven.”
Yet Billy Bathgate is a celebration of life as well, particularly the life of youth, with its boundless resilience and illusions of immortality. Now in his 60s, Billy re-creates his past as a fatherless 15-year-old in the Bronx of the 1930s. While his mother works in a local laundry, Billy—like his peers—goes to school only sporadically, steals a little and worships the mystique of Schultz, whose territory includes Billy’s neighborhood. Then, one day, Schultz drops by to visit a warehouse he owns
and sees Billy juggling two balls, a navel orange, an egg and a black stone. As wily as he is dexterous, Billy pretends to be so impressed at seeing the famous gangster that he drops everything. Pleased and impressed himself, Schultz compliments Billy and gives him a crisp $10 bill. From that moment on, Billy becomes obsessed with joining Schultz’s gang. He hangs around their hideout until they adopt him as a sort of errand boy. Eventually, he wins their full confidence, finding in the mobsters a substitute for the father who deserted him and his mother years ago.
Billy’s new family is a strange one, a motley collection of professionals as dedicated to their craft as any doctor or lawyer. They are perhaps a bit too colorful to be wholly convincing, drawn as much from Hollywood as from their real-life models. But it is hard not to like a character such as Abbadabba Berman, Schultz’s master accountant and numbers-racket man, who slips Billy money and teaches him how to shoot a gun. Even Billy’s number 1 foster-father, Schultz himself, has a kind of crude geniality. But he is also given to violent, unpredictable rages. As Schultz’s empire shows cracks, and he turns increasingly on his own colleagues, Billy realizes that closeness to the gangster is a dubious advantage.
Still, he manages to stay out of harm’s way—until the arrival of Drew Preston in Schultz’s entourage. The beautiful young woman has taken up with her lover’s murderer without any apparent qualms of conscience. Billy, because he is only a boy, is considered a trusty escort for Drew when Schultz is occupied elsewhere. But Billy falls in love with her—and indeed makes love to her in a scene of powerful eroticism set in, of all places, a swamp—and so turns himself into his benefactor’s betrayer.
The oedipal triangle between Billy, Drew and Schultz has enormous narrative promise. But instead of exploiting it to the full, Doctorow backs off the conflict before it takes form. Billy learns that the fickle Schultz wants to kill Drew because she was a witness to Bo’s murder. So he cunningly arranges to have her whisked away by her rich homosexual husband, who does not seem to mind her sleeping around. Schultz is none the wiser, and Billy goes back to playing his faithful follower—right up to the climactic moment when Schultz and his gang are gunned down by rival mobsters.
Doctorow’s refusal to fully explore Billy’s conflicting loyalties underlines the novel’s astute avoidance of any deep feeling. It is a romantically compelling fable of surfaces: of the sheen of gunmetal, of the neighborhoods of New York City, of the look and feel of expensive cars and clothes. Nothing characterizes that quality better than Billy himself. He witnesses his first murder—and all the subsequent ones—with an odd lack of emotion. He does not feel so much as observe and calculate. At times, he seems less a boy than a stylized literary device whereby Doctorow can present his darkly exciting poetry of violence.
Billy’s character may create a problem for readers who bear in mind, even as they enjoy
the teenager’s adventures, that society is being plagued by an upsurge of violent crime connected mainly to the drug trade. Such readers might well ask how Doctorow can so deliberately romanticize a life outside the law, and how he can pretend that a 15-year-old could thrive in his association with murderers.
The answer to those objections is that Billy Bathgate is intended as pure myth, a sort of Robin Hood for grown-ups. Other novels may be more psychologically subtle or emotionally resonant. But few of those celebrate, as well as Billy Bathgate does, the raw, sometimes amoral energy of life, so often feared by the
timid and the primly virtuous. That is what Doctorow suggests in Billy’s closing words of triumph. Billy reveals that he has had a happy, prosperous life—funded partly by Schultz’s illgotten fortune, which he steals—and he gives thanks to God for “my life of crime and the terror of my existence.” Something in human nature identifies with the outlaw and his rebellion against what is false and overbearing. Billy Bathgate, with its driving rhythms and hairtrigger images, is as bracing as a shot of Dutch Schultz’s bootleg scotch.
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