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on 27 January 2010
The opening word 'He' direct us to The man, the gangster Dutch Schultz who becomes the centre of Billy's world, a surrogate father. Even the pace of his breath becomes familiar to Billy.

The opening lines '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,' direct us and Billy to a becoming murder on a boat.

The opening scenes are unforgettable. In these Billy plays it cool, he is shocked, he plays it by ear, he is content, he is curious, he questions thing quietly to himself, he plays along. This is how Billy continues to play it in a mix of fear and adrenaline, being both astute and confused.

Although the adventure spans a matter of months, not years, it feels as though Billy grows up before us in the dark and frequently unpredictable time he spend with Dutch's gang. Billy is picked up by Dutch who notes he is a 'capable boy' as he stands juggling on a street corner. In this moment, an otherwise unremarkable life falls into the folds of gang life, a life that is remarkable, thrilling, and terrifying. Billy creates his surname from the street Bathgate and so he is no longer fifteen-year-old Billy Behan of the Bronx but becomes Billy Bathgate of Dutch's gang. Otto Berman, Dutch's right hand man who plays a secondary father figure, is a man of few words and many brains. The relationship they build is fascinating.

Billy's talk is dense, sharp, at times funny and richly visual without being overly descriptive. It is more sketched than painted but is incredibly complete. The reader is told of NYC in the 1930s, the heat in the summer, the noise of it, the noise of climbing the fire escapes, the noise of the street market, the sound of a shot breaking through those noises. It is in the shadows of the fire escapes and in the fear leaking below in the gangs. We get to know the smell and weight and uncomfortable bulge of money in an unplanned pocket. We get to know the smell and creases, the company and the humiliation inside the whorehouses. It is death inside and death outside, behind back doors and in front of front doors while others walk their dogs and babies.

During hiding, Billy takes small pleasure in his early morning breakfast and local newspaper. He takes pleasure in girls and women. He takes great pleasure and pride in his reversible Shadows jacket. He is good at pretending but he has troubles. He has trouble with his mother who is an unhappy outsider, prone to mad activity. He has trouble with the girl. And he has trouble with his morning breakfasts. The life he has chosen seems to overwhelm him. He worries greatly over the emotional relationship he has made with the helplessly cool Miss Drew and about her safety. But he still has his reversible Shadows jacket.

Through the planning, the hiding, the following, the shooting, the blatant, the hidden, the dead and the dying, the plot takes many turns until it falls in, dramatically, like a ceiling that has been getting wetter and wetter. But there is brightness as Billy reflects on this time, this adventure of his youth. Of course it is a page turner only I was reluctant to page turn, I wanted the adventure to last but like Billy knew, knew it couldn't last, at least not the way it was going. And so I lingered on his words.

I never considered the factual base and purposefully didn't read about Dutch Schultz. Billy Bathgate stands on its own, it felt entire and whole, his character and his story.

An absolutely excellent read which, like the life he lead, is fuelled by fascination, turning dreamy and erotic, thoughtful and contemplative with violence flaring in the shadows of both the planned and unplanned.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 20 April 2013
The notorious Dutch Schultz gang is revered by the young deprived boys of the Bronx, among them and no less impressed is Billy Bathgate who is keen to become involved, so when the chance arises he does not hold back and soon this precocious young fifteen year old finds himself accepted into the gang. This is the world of protection rackets, gang enforced business monopolies and tax evasion set against the background of drive by shootings and big black Packards.

Billy's diligence, inventiveness and initiative is such that very soon Schultz is referring to Billy as his protege. We follow Billy's rise within the gang, and his various assignments through to the ultimate fate of the gang, and to what becomes of Billy thereafter.

The shear beauty of the prose is enough to keep one going through this involving account, even if I did hesitate when just a few pages in it seemed we were going to witness a brutal gang retribution; while the horrors of gang life are there it never descended into any unnecessary gruesomeness, but maintains the emphasis on the individuality of the various characters, primarily the members of the gang and the beautiful young women who becomes involved with Schultz, and through such, Billy.

Billy Bathgate is a most involving novel, the character of the title is most endearing, but above all it is the high quality of the flowing prose that is the real pleasure of this book.
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on 5 August 2011
I have thoroughly enjoyed reading Billy Bathgate. I love what Doctorow manages to do with language, at first it's like a fast flowing river, then it slows down and eventually it reaches the sea. Brilliant.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 27 February 2007
Much of E.L Doctorow's finest writing celebrates the vibrancy, brashness, and diversity of New York City. Doctorow's novels also show a fascination with secular Jews -- with individuals who abandon traditional Jewish religious practice and adopt various other types of life. Thus, "The Book of Daniel" explores New York City in the 1940s in a historical novel based upon the Rosenbergs. Doctorow's remarkable novel, "City of God," explores contemporary New York City in the context of secular Jews and of highly liberal Jews who have adopted beliefs and practices far different from traditional Judaism.

In "Billy Bathgate", Doctorow offers an unforgettable picture of gangland New York City and of Jewish mobsters dominated by the figure of Dutch Schultz, as Doctorow takes the reader away from the humdrum everyday and into a world of rawness, danger, and excitement. Life needs its dangers and risks, Doctorow seems to be telling the reader, if it is not to be stupyfing, dull, and conventional.

"Billy Bathgate" is a coming-of-age story set in the New York City underworld of the 1930s. The book is told in the first person by its hero, the fifteen-year old Billy (who takes the name "Bathgate" from the chief commercial street in the East Bronx) who becomes attached to the gang led by the notorious Dutch Schultz (1902 -- 1935), born Arthur Flegenheimer to a poor Jewish family in the Bronx. The book is told in a breathy, highly excitable and emotive style appropriate to the voice of its young, naive protagonist. Billy's father had disappeared when the boy was young, and Billy lives with his poor, at best marginally sane mother. He seems destined for a life of petty thievery and cheap tawdry sex until Dutch Schultz notices the boy juggling on a street corner near a beer drop-off. Billy ingratiates himself with the Schultz gang in its declining days. Schultz becomes a father-figure to Billy. Schultz basks in the attention he receives from the boy and in his public notoriety.

Doctorow has written a richly-textured historical novel which shows us New York City and the gangland world. While the reader comes to understand and sympathize with Billy, Doctorow does not allow the reader to lose site of the random viciousness of gangland life. There are scenes of shocking violence and killing, the most fully developed of which involves the murder of Schultz' former associate, Bo Weinberg. Dutch Schultz in all his brutality and intensity come to life in this book as do the members of his inner circle. His chief lieutenant, Otto Berman, known as "Abadabba" Berman, a mathematical genius, becomes a mentor to Billy and is one of the most sharply-drawn characters in the novel. At great peril to himself, Billy becomes involved with Schultz' final mistress. This affair becomes the focal point of his coming to a degree of self-understanding. Rival gangs and New York officialdom, including District Attorney Thomas Dewey also receive a rich portrayal.

Much of the symbolism of the book revolves around the use of words and of change, as Billy Bathgate, Abadabba Berman, and Dutch Schultz, among others, adopt names not their own. Billy's skill at juggling, which appears at many points in the book, becomes a metaphor for the importance of adopting to change and of being light on one's feet if one is to succeed in the world. As Berman counsels Billy in many of their astonishing conversations, only the numbers are real while words change. Religion, and Jewish-Christian relations play a role in this book as well, illustrating the theme of constant change, as Dutch Schultz appears to convert from Judaism to Catholicism late in the novel. The book captures the fast-paced, slangy style of speech of its protagonists and includes as well heady, striking, and detailed passages of description.

This is a tough-minded novel, a gripping read, and, in its own way, an inspring tale. "Billy Bathgate" is an unforgettable work by one of the United States' major living storytellers.
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on 4 October 2013
Doctrow writes a descriptive narrative that presents a clear picture of the mob activities in New York during the 1930s but avoiding the common pitfall of the descriptions becoming protracted and tedious.

The narrator of the story is the eponymous Billy Bathgate a smart but poorly educated teenage apprentice gangster from the New York Bronx and describes his journey into a life of serious crime in the concluding days of the Dutch Shultz gang. It is difficult to reconcile how someone with a limited education can write such flowing sophisticated prose until you reach the end of the novel when it becomes apparent.

There perhaps have been better stories published on this subject but few have been better written.
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on 12 February 2011
You want a novel that sums up what life was like for a hoodlum in 1930s New York? This is the book for you. The author weaves the story of a teenager's efforts to escape the poverty of South Bronx with that of the real life numbers and illegal booze mobster Dutch Schultz and his gang.

The protagonist, Billy Bathgate is picked up by the gang and is witness to Schultz's slide from dominance and his encompassing rages. He learns about power and corruption and the nature of greed and love.
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on 9 May 2016
Gave up after 30 pages. Film is much better.
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on 8 January 2016
Given the theme, a brilliant book,
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 31 December 2005
Coming of age story meets historical fiction meets old timey true crime in this relatively absorbing tale of the waning months of legendary New York gangster Dutch Schultz. Set in 1934-35, the story is narrated by a poor, 15-year-old, Irish-Catholic dropout from the tenements of the East Bronx. Like all the other boys his age, Billy lives in awe of the city's big-time gangsters, and Schultz's money, charisma, and fame are powerful lures. Although Billy is fatherless and his mother is more than slightly unhinged, he's ambitious, and so manages to make himself useful as a gopher at Schultz's numbers-running headquarters, where he catches the eye of Otto Berman, Schultz's cerebral right-hand man.
As Schultz's small empire of booze, broads, numbers, and extortion starts to crumble under pressure from the feds and more powerful competitors, Billy evolves from mascot to trusted intimate -- especially after witnessing the Schultz's murder of one of his main henchmen in a scene that results in Schultz's appropriation of the man's moll as his own. The moll turns out to be a kind of young society dame out for kicks, and as the gang lies low in the upstate town of Onondaga, she and Billy develop a secret friendship that implausibly turns torridly sexual. What's nice about the book is that Billy isn't a thoughtless foot soldier, but understands Schultz's temperament and increasing instability, and is honest in tempering the glamorous side of the kingpin's with a clear view of his brutality and excesses. And though Billy can't see an immediate exit for himself (nor does he especially want one), he does recognize that if the woman doesn't leave, she's in great danger. The highlight of the book is his scheme to engineer her separation from Schultz without letting her, or anyone in the gang onto what he's doing.
Doctorow does an excellent job of showing the disintegration of the gang and of Schultz himself, as the inner circle stoically stands firm on what is clearly a sinking ship. In the final section, Schultz is under attack from special prosecutor Thomas Dewey (the future presidential candidate), and Billy is sent to follow him and work out a plan for his assassination. This sets the stage for a gripping ending which includes a classic gangland slaying, a meeting with Lucky Luciano, and Billy's attempt to make off with Schultz's rather substantial cash reserve. Which is not to say the book is a mere crime thriller -- there are strong running themes concerning identity and the American mythology of the self-made man. There's also Billy's quest for a father figure, not to mention his sexual awakening, loss of innocence, and more. Doctorow's prose is perhaps a little too restrained and the dialogue veers somewhat toward speechifying at times, but on the whole it reads well. The characterization is fairly vivid, although it's hard to stay away from the usual gangster and Depression-era stereotypes. Billy is somewhat problematic, a 15-year-old with altogether to much perception of the adult world around him. Of course, without this perception, there is no book, and this is a kind of necessary evil one comes across all too often in fiction narrated by teenagers and written by adults. It's a good book,but not a great one, and perhaps of greatest interest to those interested in New York of the mid-'30s.
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