Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Billy Bathgate by E.L. Doctorow

I am not interested in mafia stories. Or crime stories. I have not read anything written by Mario Puzo and just between you and me, even the movies don't thrill me. Why did I read Billy Bathgate? I picked up this book at a bookstore when I there for an event and wanted to patronize the shop. Didn't matter, the shop went under a few months ago, leaving me with the book but no guilt. I tried reading it aloud to my husband on a long road trip. He is a fan of books about organized crime. However, the sentences were too long and convoluted to read on the interstate while trying to shout down Buzz Lightyear on the DVD player in the back. Dean Koontz can be hollered in a minivan and the quality of the experience does not suffer. This book, not so.

The book rode around with me in the car for a while.

I took it on vacation this summer in a bag of books, and when Ahno ran out of her stash I offered her a choice: Iris Murdoch, a children's book by Luc Besson, a children's book about squirrels, Doctor Zhivago, or Billy Bathgate. She picked Billy Bathgate. She read it, and her assessment was that it was a portrait of a world without a god, a world without redemption, where there is nothing higher than the top of your own head, and you therefore roll around in the filth that humans create, and know no better.

I don't know about that. I just do not care very much about crime and this glamorous romantic lifestyle and the moral relativism does not impress me or even horrify me. Not even window washers plummeting 20 stories and still having the strength to crawl one inch -- not even that really horrifies or engages me. What lit me up in this book was the writing. Sentence by sentence, word by word, the gorgeous intense memorable language. Not the subject matter, at all, which is even more proof of just how brilliant the writing had to be.

I have loaned the book to Susannah to read but when I get it back I will put an excerpt in about driving through the country in the dark. The main character was born, raised in Brooklyn, has never been out of New York City, and his first experience with nighttime in the countryside, he characterizes the dark as a loss of knowledge, the strip of white down the center of the road, illuminated by headlights, as a strand of life down a gaping abyss.

Over and over, there was a description, a paragraph, even a phrase that made me want to scribble something gushy in the margin. Whee! It was fun. Like finding gems buried in the sand -- the drab, dry sand of prohibition, depression, the rackets, the men in suits, etc. I liked it because it wasn't gritty, because it wasn't real, it was glamorous not only in the rich broads and the racetracks and nightclubs, but in the thickness and intensity of all the language.

The plot arc? Phooey. The ending? Bordering on dreadful. But it didn't matter.


  1. I just love the author photos you choose. Here, Doctorow looks so sleepy, and further down, Rowling looks much less smartly groomed than I've ever seen her, and more like a bookwormy nerd who just spent hours tearing her hair out over plot complications.

  2. Hehehe... yes. Google Image Search is so much fun. You can see the polished public photos and you can see the ones where they look like they're picking their noses, etc. :) Viva la Google.

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