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Billy Bathgate

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In 1930's New York, Billy Bathgate, a fifteen-year-old highschool dropout, has captured the attention of infamous gangster Dutch Schultz, who lures the boy into his world of racketeering. The product of an East Bronx upbringing by his half-crazy Irish Catholic mother, after his Jewish father left them long ago, Billy is captivated by the world of money, sex, and high society the charismatic Schultz has to offer. But it is also a world of extortion, brutality, and murder, where Billy finds himself involved in a ...
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Billy Bathgate: A Novel

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Overview

In 1930's New York, Billy Bathgate, a fifteen-year-old highschool dropout, has captured the attention of infamous gangster Dutch Schultz, who lures the boy into his world of racketeering. The product of an East Bronx upbringing by his half-crazy Irish Catholic mother, after his Jewish father left them long ago, Billy is captivated by the world of money, sex, and high society the charismatic Schultz has to offer. But it is also a world of extortion, brutality, and murder, where Billy finds himself involved in a dangerous affair with Schultz's girlfriend.

Relive this story through the title character's driving narrative, a child's thoughts and feelings filtered through the sensibilities of an adult, and the result is E.L. Doctorow's most convincing and appealing portrayal of a young boy's life. Converging mythology and history, one of America's most admired authors has captured the romance of gangsters and criminal enterprise that continues to fascinate the American psyche today.

"Riveting...mesmerizing...incandescent ...unforgettable."--Time "Simply marvelous..."--Chicago Sun-Times

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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 existence.

The astonishing story of Billy's apprenticeship to Shultz and his education at the hands of the mobster's minions is related by Doctorow with masterful skill, grace and lucidity of prose, inspired inventiveness of scene and true-voiced dialogue. Equally a rollicking adventure and a cautionary tale, both parable of the prodigal son and poignant coming-of-age story, it is mesmerizing reading that soars from the shocking first scene of a gangland execution through episodes of horror, hilarity and sudden, deepening insights. In his odyssey, Billy will learn about human nature as well as extortion and policy rackets; he will travel to the upstate rural community of Onandaga where Schultz will be brought to trial by special prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey; he will be exposed to the world of Park Avenue socialites; he will acquire a gun and better manners; he will discover that the "glamor and class'' of a big-time racketeer is achieved through good business methods as well as violence; he will comprehend the seamy relationship between criminals and politicians, and he will fall in love.

Perhaps the most affecting example of the dichotomy that rules his life occurs when, after having witnessed the most vicious brutalities, he returns to the Bronx and goes shopping with his mother for his first suit. In this stunning, lyrical novel, Doctorow has perfected the narrative voice of a lower-class boy encountering the world surpassing those of the protagonists of Ragtime, Loon Lake and World's Fair . He falters only in a sentimental, almost fairytale ending that belies the harsh realities by which the narrative is propelled. But so fine and convincing is this story that the reader accepts in its entirety Doctorow's mythical vision, a dark version of the Horatio Alger fable related with a brilliant twist.

Library Journal
Having grown up poor but ambitious on the Bronx's Bathgate Avenue during the Depression, young Billy is now being educated in the ways of the world. But his is no ordinary education, for Billy is a gangster-in-training employed by the notorious Dutch Schultz. As the story moves fluidly from the violent underworld of New York City to the playgrounds of the rich, Billy falls for "the Dutchman's'' latest lady -- a beauty named Drew Preston who eventually reciprocates his youthful passion. Soon Billy is questioning the actions of the mob he was so eager to join as he seeks to protect Drew from its vengeance. Though at times 15-year-old Billy seems far too precocious, even for a streetwise punk, ultimately we are made to feel his apprehension of the world: that "large, empty resounding adulthood booming with terror.''

An engrossing tale that successfully re-creates worlds gone by in loving and meticulous detail. -- Barbara Hoffert

Library Journal
Having grown up poor but ambitious on the Bronx's Bathgate Avenue during the Depression, young Billy is now being educated in the ways of the world. But his is no ordinary education, for Billy is a gangster-in-training employed by the notorious Dutch Schultz. As the story moves fluidly from the violent underworld of New York City to the playgrounds of the rich, Billy falls for "the Dutchman's'' latest lady -- a beauty named Drew Preston who eventually reciprocates his youthful passion. Soon Billy is questioning the actions of the mob he was so eager to join as he seeks to protect Drew from its vengeance. Though at times 15-year-old Billy seems far too precocious, even for a streetwise punk, ultimately we are made to feel his apprehension of the world: that "large, empty resounding adulthood booming with terror.''

An engrossing tale that successfully re-creates worlds gone by in loving and meticulous detail. -- Barbara Hoffert

New York Times Books of the Century
...E.L. Doctorow's shapeliest novel....packed with complex and oddly beautiful street scenes, filled with grime and color.
From the Publisher
“A wonderful addition to the ranks of American boy heroes . . . Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer with more poetry, Holden Caulfield with more zest and spirit . . . The kind of book you find yourself finishing at three in the morning after promising at midnight that you’ll stop at the next page.”—New York Times Book Review
 
“A modern American masterpiece . . . Doctorow takes up the legacies of Fitzgerald and Cheever and adds to them a savage and erotic splendor of his own.”—John le Carré

“Indelible in its fierce energy, its relentless irony, its rawness.”—Philadelphia Inquirer
 
“Riveting . . . mesmerizing . . . unforgettable.”—Time
 
“Enthralling.”—Los Angeles Times
 
 

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780452280021
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 12/28/1998
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.36 (w) x 8.02 (h) x 0.78 (d)

Meet the Author

E. L. Doctorow
E. L. Doctorow’s novels include The March, City of God, The Waterworks, Welcome to Hard Times, The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, Loon Lake, Lives of the Poets, World’s Fair, and Billy Bathgate. His work has been published in thirty-two languages. Among his honors are the National Book Award, three National Book Critics Circle awards, two PEN/Faulkner awards, the Edith Wharton Citation for Fiction, the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the presidentially conferred National Humanities Medal. E. L. Doctorow lives in New York.

Biography

E. L. Doctorow, one of America's preeminent authors, has received the National Book Critics Circle Award (twice), the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Edith Wharton Citation For Fiction, and the William Dean Howells medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has also published a volume of selected essays Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution, and a play, Drinks Before Dinner, which was produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival. He resides in New Rochelle, New York.

Author biography courtesy of Penguin Group (USA).

Good To Know

Doctorow began his career as a reader for Columbia Pictures. He went on to work as an editor for New American Library in the early 1960s, and then served as chief editor at Dial Press from 1964 to 1969.

Critics assailed Doctorow for delivering a commencement address critical of President George W. Bush at Hofstra University in May 2004.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Edgar Lawrence Doctorow (full name; named for Edgar Allan Poe)
      Edgar Laurence Doctorow
    2. Hometown:
      Sag Harbor, New York, and New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      January 6, 1931
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      A.B., Kenyon College, 1952; postgraduate study, Columbia University, 1952-53
    2. Website:

Reading Group Guide

1. Billy Bathgate has been described as “Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer with more poetry, Holden Caulfield with more zest and spirit” (New York Times Book Review). How would you describe Billy? How is he like—or unlike—Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, and Holden Caulfield?
 
2. Trace Billy’s evolution—from Billy Behan, a poor kid living in the Bronx, to Billy Bathgate, a street smart, gun-toting member of Dutch Schultz’s infamous gang. How does Billy change? In what ways does he stay the same?
 
3. In Billy Bathgate, our setting is New York in the 1930s. Discuss the Bronx, Manhattan, Onondaga, Saratoga, and New Jersey, as seen through Doctorow’s—and Billy’s—eyes.
 
4. Circumstance and fate play large roles in the novel. Of his chance meeting with Dutch, Billy says, “I couldn’t have been planning to juggle continuously every day of my idling life until Mr. Schultz arrived, it had just happened. But now that it had I saw it as destiny. The world worked by chance but every chance had a prophetic heft to it” (29). Discuss this quote in the context of Dutch and Billy’s introduction, and also throughout the course of the novel. Do you think Billy’s success was based on circumstance and fate? Or was it something more?
 
5. Early in their relationship, Dutch calls Billy his “good-luck kid” (57). But by the end of the novel, Billy realizes “I didn’t know him when he had a handle on things and everything was as he wanted it to be. . . . [Dutch] had risen and he was falling. And the Dutchman’s life with me was his downfall” (280-281). Is Billy right about Dutch? Did Billy bring him any good luck? Or did Dutch bring more good luck to Billy’s life?
 
6. Discuss Billy and Dutch’s relationship over the course of the novel. Why did Dutch take on Billy? Why did Billy stay loyal to Dutch? What did both gain—or lose—from their relationship?
 
7. Similarly, talk about Billy’s relationship with Otto Berman. What does Billy learn from him? In the end, do you think Billy felt closer to Dutch or Otto? Discuss your reasoning.
 
8. Before falling for Drew, Billy considers Rebecca, a girl he once paid for sex, his girlfriend. How does his relationship with Becky change, and what does it say about Billy’s personal evolution? Think about this quote, from the night of Billy’s neighborhood party, as you discuss: “I reflected as I lay there that my life was changing more quickly and in more ways than I could keep up with. Or was it all just one thing, as if everything had the same charge to it, so that if I was remade to Mr. Schultz’s touch, Becky was remade to mine, and there was only one infinitely extending flash of conformation” (102).
 
9. Billy seems to struggle with finding his place in Dutch’s gang—and the world. Upon arriving in a posh hotel in Onondaga, he says, “I loved this luxury” (117) and throughout the story he is attracted to the glitz and glamour that comes with being part of Dutch’s group. But then he thinks, “The only thing that cheered me up was the sight of a cockroach walking up the wall . . . because then I knew The Onondaga Hotel was not all it was cracked up to be” (119). Talk about these conflicting impressions and what they say about Billy as a character.
 
10. Drew (or Lola or Mrs. Preston) has tremendous influence on Billy throughout the course of the novel. Discuss the evolution of their relationship—from mother/son to charge/custodian to lover. Do you think Billy truly loved Drew? Did she love him? What about Dutch? Discuss Drew’s relationship with him.
 
11. Of Drew, Billy says: “She’s not after anything, she’s not naturally afraid like most girls you’d meet or jealous or any of that. She does whatever she wants, and then she gets bored and then she does something else” (242). Is this accurate? Why or why not?
 
12. Billy continuously proves his loyalty to Dutch, and though he thinks of leaving the gang at one point, he quickly dismisses it: “I knew I would do nothing of the kind . . . . life held no grandeur for a simple thief, I had not gotten this far and whoever had hung this charm over my life had not chosen me because I was a cowardly double-crosser” (271). Why doesn’t he cut his losses and run? Is he afraid of Dutch? Is he just fiercely loyal? Or is it something else?
 
13. Billy survives—both with the gang and with his life in the end of the novel—because he is loyal, he makes smart choices, and he’s adaptable. He thinks: “When the situation changed, would I change with it? Yes, the answer was always yes. And that gave me the idea that maybe all identification is temporary because you went through a life of changing situations” (138). Discuss this quote in the context of the novel. Does it ring true for Billy? Does it hold any meaning for your life?
 
14. At the end of the novel, we learn that Billy, an adult, has been telling the story of his teenage self. He reflects: “I find some consolation . . . in having told here the truth about everything of my life with Dutch Schultz . . . . I have told the truth of what I have told in the words and the truth of what I have not told which resides in the words” (321). What are we to make of that? Have we heard the whole truth? What is gained—or lost—by Billy as an adult telling the story of Billy as a teenager? Why do you think Doctorow chose to tell his story in this way?
 
15. At the end of Billy Bathgate, we learn that Billy finished high school, went on to an Ivy League college, became a second lieutenant in the Army and is a man of a “certain renown” (321). And to top it all off, he had a son with Drew, who is delivered to his doorstep a year after they have stopped speaking. Where you surprised with the end of Billy’s story? Why or why not?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 17, 2002

    excellent story

    I've only read two of Doctorow's books, this one and _The Book of Daniel_, and this novel is about as far from daniel as you can get (though both are excellent). It's an excellent story about a boy coming of age in the 20s and 30s as a sort of member of Dutch Shultz's gang. He learns lifes lessons from these men. Doctorow's prose is lyrical, a sort of irony when you put the beautiful language Doctorow uses with the violence and moral ambiguity of the characters. This is a great culmination of Doctorow's work.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2001

    Fine Historical Fiction Set in the Early 20th Century

    An excellent tale of an aspiring young street tough's initiation into the dangers and excitment of the gangster life, circa the 1930's, this book captures its era and the personalities it portrays with an astonishing verve and veracity. The tone and 'voice' feel right, speeding along brilliantly, while the tale, of a young fellow's awakening from gawking naivete to a certain street-smart cynicism, rings remarkably true. If there is a reason for reading fiction today, BILLY BATHGATE offers the perfect example: it is a means for carrying us into places and times now long gone which still may resonate in the contemporary soul. While the hero is a trifle too cloying for my tastes and seems rather more inured to the moral chaos he sees around him than his apparent sensibility suggests he should be, this is, finally, a small fault to find with such a deflty turned tale. Progressing from a 15-year old loner on street corners to mascot of the Dutch Schultz gang, as they hurtle down the spiral of their final decline, the self-named Billy Bathgate insinuates himself into the precarious confidences of this remakably unstable crew. Schultz, himself, the erratic gang leader, has already slipped into a dangerous condition of paranoia and isolation and his hangers-on live from moment to moment in fearful unease, unable to check the excesses of their leader or to separate themselves from him. Billy finds their life oddly mesmerizing as he gets sucked into witnessing outbursts of murder and coldly planned gangland executions, until his role brings him into the orbit of a flighty, if beautiful, society doll. Then a burgeoning adolescent crush seems to awaken him to what he has done and, as in a dream, he begins to seek a way out. The ending comes swiftly and will surprise those who have not yet seen the movie (which captures much, but not all, of the written tale). And yet the wrap-up is a little bit of a let-down (rather too pat, actually) and I longed to know more of who and what this Billy turned out to be. Yet, on balance, this was a fine novel and evidence, indeed, for the solid reputation Doctorow has earned.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 15, 2009

    The finest American novel I have ever read

    A brilliant, mesmerizing tour de force.

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