Review of Billy Bathgate

E. L. Doctorow’s novel Billy Bathgate is a first person point of view account of a 15 year-old Bronx boy who has been raised by his mother as his father abandoned him. Set in the 1930s, Billy is distinguished from his peers by his cleverness and daring. While juggling one day, a metaphor for his dexterity and speed both physically and mentally, he comes to the attention of the most notorious local gangsters, Mr. Schultz, who is known colloquially as The Dutchman. Billy’s receipt of ten dollars for his skills starts him on a path away from his childhood friends into that gang soon even becomes Mr. Schultz’s protégé. Billy’s fondness for the criminal syndicate that he soon enters is clearly linked to his upbringing in grinding poverty, his lack of father and feelings of distinction from those in his neighborhood.

One of the things that I enjoyed about the book was the manner in which the narrator, Billy, is able to express a complexity of thought that is unlikely for him to have without it seeming unrealistic. It makes for more compelling introspective monologues and makes the other characters increasing reliance upon a child seem more believable. While this is part of his carriage as a character – someone smarter and more able than other – he is not some untouchable character on a wholly upward ascent. It is there, in those moments when Billy’s ego is hurt that allows him access to the greatest insight. He sees what’s going on as an outsider, a child not yet fully involved in the decision making apparatus that he’s attached himself, yet also as an insider for he has greater access to what’s going on than most. This tension is both a sort of anxiety for him and, in the end, a source of security.

If I were to give the book a feminist reading I’d say that the relationships that Billy and the other male characters have with women all fit into the category of plain objectification. But I would also qualify this as endemic to the time and complicated by a variety of circumstances. For instance Drew, the lover of Bo, Mr. Schultz and later Billy, presents a complicated case requiring more depth of analysis. While she does seem to be the typical rich party girl in the mix with the wrong crowd, she is also able to exercise a large degree of autonomy and prescience over her situation. Thus she knows that at times she is in danger, she still continues to stay amongst them out of an affected, privileged boredom until her position there is no longer tenable. Billy’s mother, in contrast, suffers from some mental derangement, is largely absent once he begins this new life and then is someone that needs to be taken care of rather than is able to take care of Billy. The brief “love” between an adolescent prostitute and Billy also bolsters this notion of women as objects but also is complicated enough so as to blur any clear classification.

One of the more interesting aspects of the novel to me is that as I’ve just finished writing my novel’s first part on Jesse, I see so many overlapping plot elements within our two works. Now there’s a number of major differences and the stylistic elements between my and Doctorow’s work is great – but I’m still amused by this. I think in a way it has to do with something that is propounded by Otto Berman in the book. When he is speaking with Billy he tells him how all the number in the books that he has with information related to Dutch Schultz’s various illegal doings could be thrown up into the air and then come back down on the page and tell a whole other story. I’m dealing with many of the same variables so there’s really only a limited number of ways that the interactions can come together. Additionally, that this story can be considered literature while having many of the same elements that I have in mine, though admittedly not in as graphic detail as I use, gives me premature hope against imagined future detractors.