E.L. Doctorow is our loudest contemporary champion of the social novel, whose defining characteristic he posits as "the large examination of society within a story" of "imperial earthshaking intention." (The genre's American apotheosis is Frank Norris's The Octopus.)
Billy Bathgate is Doctorow's latest, and if his publicist's yowling chorus of "masterpiece" is a bit much, the novel is nevertheless entertaining, mordant, and surprisingly—for those who have read Doctorow's dreary socialist harangues in The Nation—sage.
Fifteen-year-old Billy of Bathgate Avenue in the Bronx is standing outside a beer warehouse, juggling a battery of balls, fruits, and stones, when gangster Arthur Flegenheimer, AKA Dutch Schultz, espies him and pronounces the dexterous lad "a capable boy." This throwaway remark begets in Billy grand dreams, and he bids adieu to his urchin-pals, to their "dead witless eyes" and inevitable "slow death[s] of incredible subjugation." With great resourcefulness, Billy insinuates himself into Dutch Schultz's inner circle as the mobster's "proto-jay."
Schultz is a brutal psychopath, given to crushing the skulls of hapless marplots. He is a primitive, an anachronism almost, in the brave new world of the 1930's. Dutch's comptroller, Abbadabba Berman, explains to...