Occasionally, I have a book on my TBR list that just keeps getting pushed to the bottom, for no good reason. Billy Bathgate, by E.L. Doctorow, has been on my list for about ten years. I think I started listening to it on audiobook all that time ago, and the copy was unlistenably bad, so I gave up and put it on my to-read list, and then just never got around to it. I finally decided to read something off the very bottom of my list, shrugged, and got this out of the library. And now I can’t believe I waited so long. This book was fantastic — one of the best, most vivid, engaging reads I’ve had for months.
Billy “Bathgate” Behan is a fifteen-year-old boy in 1930s Brooklyn. His one aimless aim in life is to be noticed by the powerful and mighty, and in his small and circumscribed life, the only person grand enough to realize such an ambition for him is the gangster Dutch Schultz. Billy insinuates himself into the gang, half-thrilled out of his mind and half-terrified, and becomes their gofer and their mascot. He is witness to more money and luxury than he’s ever seen, but also to the brutal murders that are necessary to obtain it; he sees Dutch’s irrational rages and Abbadaba Berman’s cool accountant’s head.
All this would be enough for a wild adolescent, dealing with his own transition into the adult world, his ideas about mortality, his hero-worship, and his own sexuality. But the factor that tips the balance of the book is Miss Drew. In the opening scene of the book, Dutch kills one of his own men, Bo Weinberg, for real or imagined treason. Drew was once Bo’s girl, and after the murder she’s mysteriously attached to Dutch. Is there coercion involved? Conspiracy? We never know: Drew is cool, elegant, and reserved, far more refined than her gangster lover, and she never spills what she thinks. Soon Billy, assigned to protect her, is in love with her, and he moves from a raw and unsophisticated admiration of Dutch and lust for Drew to a much more nuanced understanding of money, madness, tenderness, and what protection does and does not mean in a violent world.
And I’m not giving a fraction of a sense of what this book is like. Doctorow’s style is breathless, long paragraphs punctuated by commas rather than periods:
Mr. Berman sat down and lit a new cigarette from the old one, and then Lulu came over to me as if to adjust my position, because it was apparently not quite right, he positioned me and continued to hold my shoulders and just at the moment of my revelation by a moment too late I thought I saw him grin with a flash of one gold tooth, although maybe the slowness of my mind on this occasion was a blessing because actually as he swung I did not have the opportunity to reveal anything less than total sacrificial loyalty, it would not have done in this hierarchy of men to say why me why me…
The effect of this style is one of hurry. It’s as if Billy is running everywhere, hanging on to the back of tram cars, running urgent errands at a moment’s notice, ducking into alleyways to avoid thugs, and we’re with him every step of the way. The details are incredibly rich and vivid. This was one of those books where I scarcely saw the words on the page; instead, I saw images spooling out in front of my eyes. More than once, I caught my breath. It’s funny, and wry, and individual, and bursting with life. It deals with religion and the American dream of making your own way and immigrant communities and poverty and sex and the glamorization of violence and mothers and sons. I absolutely loved it. I wish I hadn’t put off reading it. I wish I’d been reading Doctorow for the past ten years.