Monday, December 6, 2010

"Billy Bathgate" by E.L. Doctorow

I am a huge fan of Boardwalk Empire on HBO.  The season finale last night floored me.  I honestly watch maybe 3 or 4 television shows regularly, and this was one of them.  I totally got into the dirty glamor of gangster life in Prohibition Era America.  That said, I really don't know much about it.

I first read E.L. Doctorow in college; it was Ragtime and I loved it.  I have wanted to read more of his works for awhile now, but I just never got around to it....  until now.  I saw that he wrote a book about Gangsters in New York, and I had to read it.  What I neglected to do was fully realize Doctorow's talent in creating a fictional world from reality.

Billy Bathgate is a fifteen year old punk, growing up in the Bronx in 1935, totally in awe of the gangster Dutch Schultz.  His talent for juggling gets him noticed by Schultz, but Billy takes it upon himself to get "adopted" into the gang and ultimately become Schultz's "apprentice" so to speak.  Billy quickly gets swept up in the business, even though it's the beginning of the end for Schultz and his gang.  It was riveting.  It took me a bit to get used to Doctorow's writing style, as it is written in a stream of consciousness style.  But this style created the emotional connection I had with Billy.  My heart was thumping through the ending!

There were characters described in the book in such a way that I knew I was supposed to recognize them.  But, as I said before...  I really don't know much about the Gangsters themselves.  So, when I checked out the Wikipedia article for the book, I was shocked.  I didn't even realize that Dutch Schultz was a real Gangster.  I didn't realize that the Italian who was mentioned at Schultz's Baptism, or at the end of the book was Lucky Luciano (though aside from not mentioning him by name, Doctorow really didn't try to keep his identity a secret).  I had no idea that most of the events described in this book really happened.  I'm kind of glad that I didn't realize it though...  I enjoyed the suspense of not knowing, and all the added drama in rethinking the story that I feel now that I do know.

This book has won several awards, and was the 1990 runner up for the Pulitzer Prize.  The author's website can be found here.

Billy Bathgate
by E.L. Doctorow
Random House, 1989
323 pages

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