Billy Bathgate by E. L. Doctorow

Billy BathgateAfter being enthralled with Ragtime, I was anticipating another great read with Billy Bathgate, but, alas, I was not to be so rewarded.  While the writing was above par and the story intriguing, it lacked the allure I was expecting to once again find.

A young boy living in a Bronx tenement with his unstable mother is lured into a mobster’s life after he is judged to be a “capable boy” by the infamous Dutch Schultz.  At age 15, the young Billy Bathgate experiences a life’s worth of lessons.

The book’s namesake, Billy Bathgate, is left much to his own devices as his father has walked out and his mother’s mental status is questionable.  He visits the orphanage across from his Bronx apartment and enjoys sex on the roof with a 14-year-old girl for fifty cents.  He juggles on street corners to impress his neighbors where he catches the eye of a famous mobster.  He is quickly initiated in the ways of the mob and realizes a little too late that he is in way over his head.  Somehow this snarky thug manages to earn the reader’s sympathies.

Arthur Flegenheimer, aka Dutch Schultz is a violent and volatile man running his gang into more and more dangerous situations.  He is under investigation and preparing for a trial when Billy enters his world and who he treats, at times like a nephew and at other times, like an adversary.  He is so caught up in his unravelling world, that there is certainly no chance for redemption.  An irrational and angry man I would not wish to cross.

Billy’s mother, Mary Behan, is thrown off-balance when her husband abandons his family.  She scratches out his eyes in a photograph that she keeps on display and brings an empty baby carriage home that she takes out for strolls on occasion with rotten food inside.  She never confronts her son about his whereabouts, but her behavior without voice speaks volumes to how she truly feels and that she is not as ignorant as she behaves.  A hardworking and downtrodden woman who gained my sympathies from the get go.

I would truly love speaking with Mr. Doctorow and hear about his early days in New York and how it shaped his writing.  I’d love to ask if his work as an editor was a help or a hindrance when he set out to write full-time.  A man this interesting would surely allow for no lulls in our conversation.

My rating for Billy Bathgate is a 7 out of 10.

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Next up, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray…The Picture of Dorian Gray


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