Picks and Pans Review: Billy Bathgate

updated 03/20/1989 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/20/1989 01:00AM

by E. L. Doctorow

Imagine a journey that leads past breathtaking vistas, curves through unexpected, lush scenery and ends up in a warehouse that contains only a sign saying THERE'S NOTHING HERE. That suggests what it's like to read this fable without a moral, a shaggy gangster novel by the author of Ragtime, World's Fair and five other novels. Doctorow's protagonist, Billy Bathgate, is a fatherless Bronx 15-year-old who ingratiates his way into the gang of '20s-'30s mobster Dutch Schultz as Schultz's organization is disintegrating. Billy starts as a lowly gofer, but he opportunistically learns where some bodies are buried and assumes a crucial role. Doctorow has built the story around the real-life Schultz, from his penchant for blonds to his murder by gangland associates who knew his plan to kill then-special prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey would be ruinous. So there are no big plot surprises. But Doctorow's use of the language and his ability to toy with an idea are powerful forces. Remembering how he once looked across a table at a young woman he had just slept with, Billy says, "This was the moment I began to understand that you can't remember sex. You can remember the fact of it, and recall the setting, and even the details, but the sex of the sex cannot be remembered, the substantive truth of it, it is by nature self-erasing, you can remember its anatomy and be left with a judgment as to the degree of your liking of it, but whatever it is as a splurge of being, as a loss, as a charge of the conviction of love stopping your heart like your execution, there is no memory of it in the brain, only the deduction that it happened and that time passed, leaving you with a silhouette that you want to fill in again." Doctorow also makes his characters strikingly vivid, from Billy and his ragpicker pal Arthur Garbage to Schultz, his clever bookkeeper Abbadabba Berman and Drew Preston, Schultz's socialite girlfriend. Billy's progress in gangsterdom is entertaining, often wondrously so. It is easy to enjoy the fabrication, confident that everything will coalesce at the end in a suggestion of how this fictional life is relevant or makes its philosophical point. Something. Instead the book deteriorates in a stream of implausibilities, among them Billy's hiding undetected behind a screen in Schultz's hospital room for hours as the gangster lay dying. The ending at times seems to be a tribute to the virtues of amorality. Mostly, though, it's vague. By most standards this would be a terrific novel, aimlessness notwithstanding. Doctorow's past work and his talent, however, raise standards that are much higher than usual, and by those demanding measures this is a disappointment. (Random House, $19.95)

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