Tuesday, February 16, 2010

321. Billy Bathgate - E.L. Doctorow

History: This book was published in 1989.
Plot: In the poorest part of the Bronx, in the depths of the Depression, a teenage, fatherless street kid who will adopt the name Billy Bathgate comes to the attention of his idol, master gangster Dutch Schultz. Resourceful, brash, daring and brave, the narrator understands that morality will have no influence in lifting him from his poverty; by hitching his wagon to the mobster's star he can hope to provide his gentle, mad mother and himself with a way to rise out of their desolate existenceThe title character is a poor and fatherless teenager growing up in the Bronx, Billy. Billy's mother works in a laundry and is mentally ill. Billy is in a gang, happily living in poverty, and is getting sex from Becky, a girl in the orphanage next door. The book opens as Billy witnesses a grisly murder of Beau, a mobster that was working for Dutch's rival. Billy and his friends are in awe of the flashy mobsters in the neighborhood.Billy became involved in the mob by catching the attention of Dutch Schultz and Otto Berman, based on the real-life mobsters, and they hire Billy as a gofer and become mentors to him.
There are tax evasion charges on Dutch, and this is a time of stress within the gang. Beau is found out, and killed, and Beau's girlfriend, Drew, is taken into the gang as Dutch's muse. Drew is a young, beautiful blonde; she is married to a wealthy older man.
The gangsters take Billy upstate, where they are awaiting a trial. Schultz, as an attempt to become liked within this small town, becomes a community leader and converts to Catholicism. Drew is to be Billy's governess, and they begin to spend a lot of time together, they are close in age.
Billy works his way up because of his motivation and intelligence. He begins to question the integrity of his "friends" after several incidents, mainly when one of Dutch's thugs bloodied his nose to cover the blood from a murder. And Billy falls in love with Drew, or in lust. Berman sends Drew to Saratoga because she "knows too much" during the trial, and sends Billy along with her to keep an eye on her. This is when they become sexual together, and act as a couple. Billy becomes afraid, realizing Dutch's temper and brutality. He begins to suspect danger, and calls Drew's husband in New York City to come and rescue her. And he does, and Drew is whisked away in the middle of the races, right in front of the mobsters.
After Schultz is acquitted, Attorney General Thomas Dewey brings up more charges and the gang goes into hiding in a brothel in Union City, New Jersey. Dutch hires Billy to spy on Dewey. While Billy is visiting the gang to give them updates on Mr Dewey's routine, unnamed gangsters come in and kill everyone except Billy and the bartender.
Just before his death, Dutch tells Billy the combination to his safe. After everything settles down, Billy goes back to Schultz's hotel room and takes all the money from his safe. The Spring after Schultz's death, a man in a uniform drops off a basket with a baby inside. It was Billy's son that he had with Drew, and his mother instantly helped raise him. Billy went on to join the service, and become a good citizen.
Review: The story of a teenage boy from New York who idolizes the notorious Dutch Schultz and delves somewhat into Dutch's history and associates, but mainly tells the story straight and intensely from Billy's point of view, from
disappointment to excitement, sex and school and orphans, the dilapidation of the neighborhood where he grew up, and society in general.
Opening Line: "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 the 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 dock master should have been sitting, nor on the boat itself, and certainly not from the car, yet everyone knew where everything was, and when the big Packard came down the ramp Mickey the driver braked it so that the wheels hardly rattled the boards, and
when he pulled up alongside the gangway the doors were already open and they hustled Bo and the girl upside before they even made a shadow in all that darkness."
Closing Line: "And all the life of the city turning out to greet us just as in the old days of our happiness, before my father fled, when the family used to go walking, this bazaar of life, Bathgate, in the age of Dutch Schultz."
Quotes: "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."
Rating: Excellent

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