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Becoming Billy Bathgate : An Unmissable Adventure
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.