Book #60: Billy Bathgate

E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate was a pretty fun read.

It’s a New York gangster story. Basically, this teenager gets wrapped up in the world of organized crime when a successful (but on his way down) gangster takes him under his wing and starts training him to become part of the underworld.

“Billy Bathgate,” as the boy calls himself, finds himself in over his head, but somehow managing to keep afloat when he joins the ranks of Dutch Schultz’s gang. All too soon, he finds himself rapidly coming of age in a dangerous but seductive society. He must quickly learn the ropes and figure out how to survive, before the gang goes down – and takes him with it.

In many ways, I couldn’t help but think of Billy Bathgate as a sort of “un-Godfather.” Like Puzo’s book, Bathgate is also set in New York City, has an enigmatic leader who pulls many strings but is starting to lose power, and sucks readers into the intriguing underworld.

Of course, I don’t think that anybody will ever write a better gangster book than The Godfather, so it was really unfair to E.L. Doctorow and Billy Bathgate for me to make that comparison. Especially because, aside from those surface things, the Bathgate is very different from The Godfather.

It isn’t just a crime story, it’s a coming-of-age story. And a freaking interesting one at that. Billy is put into situations far above his maturity level as he sees men die, is entrusted with protecting molls, is taught to shoot, and initiated into the gang. The narrator, an older, matured Billy, recalls his youth with hindsight and perspective. His mature, adult reflections on his sometimes-childish actions add an interesting layer to the narrative.

Perspective is always an interesting thing. Things that seemed terribly confusing, and choices that seemed impossible to make suddenly become clear when you look back at them from years later. In Billy Bathgate, when the character was often making life-and-death decisions, but reflecting on them as an adult, years later, it created a really unique text.

I highly recommend that people give Billy Bathgate a try. It’s a unique, interesting, intriguing book.

Rating: ****
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