BILLY BATHGATE By E.L. Doctorow, New York: Random House, 323 pp. $19.95
In ``Billy Bathgate,'' his latest novel, E.L. Doctorow appears to have based his story on the shaky assumption that his teen-aged hero's fixation on the Dutch Schultz gang is as universally resonant as Faust's thirst for hidden knowledge, Cathy's passion for Heathcliff, or Huck Finn's need to get away from civilization. Doctorow builds his novel, undoubtedly a tour de force of sorts, out of two opposing lines of tension: The first is the perception that crime is glamorous and that criminals are daring, self-reliant warrior-heroes. The second is the revelation that crime can be brutal, disgusting, and nauseating.
So we have crime as a celebration of vitality versus crime as a humiliation of life itself. The contrast is neatly balanced, but the contrasted ideas are never developed beyond the stage of truism.
The eponymous young narrator, who names himself ``Bathgate'' after a market in his native Bronx, manages to attach himself as a kind of errand boy, mascot, and apprentice to the notorious Dutch Schultz gang in the 1930s. He witnesses some horrifying murders that do not accord with his idea of criminal heroics, but the horror he feels is mitigated by the money he makes and by the excitement he gets from being so close to a source of raw power.
Billy first catches Schultz's attention because of his skills as a street juggler. Juggling comes to serve as a metaphor for the way Billy will juggle his conflicting attraction and revulsion, anxiety, and admiration. It is also a metaphor for the orderly ``spin'' of the organized crime machinery: the flow of money (bribes, payoffs, extortion, numbers, and other rackets) and the ebb and flow of the criminal acts that elude the mathematics of profit and loss (suspicion, betrayal, revenge, and rage, the commodities in which Schultz himself deals).
Billy enters the world of this peculiar solar system just as it is starting to break down, as the juggler's spinning plates begin to wobble, careening off course in shattering, unpredictable trajectories. Unnecessary murders are messing up the criminal arithmetic of ``orderly'' retribution (Billy is as much attracted by the quasi-military ``order'' of gang life as by its lawlessness). The killer/leader is increasingly off-balance, in constant danger of overstepping a line his fellow outlaws, who have no qualms about overstepping the ordinary bounds of law, would nonetheless consider beyond the pale.
Technically, ``Billy Bathgate'' is an accomplished piece of fiction. Intellectually and thematically, it is less interesting than Doctorow's earlier work, including his almost forgotten first novel, ``The Book of Daniel,'' a fictional extrapolation of the story of the children of the executed ``atom spies'' Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Like much of Doctorow's previous work, ``Billy Bathgate'' takes its imaginative nourishment from the image-rich storehouse of American history. Whether Doctorow feeds off history or enriches it remains a moot point.
The structure of this book, however, is an object lesson in novelistic technique. The scene shifts brilliantly from the backrooms, alleys, and nightclubs of Manhattan to the quiet neighborhoods of City Island, to the bucolic upstate town of Onondaga, where Dutch and his gang ingratiate themselves with the locals who will sit on the jury at his upcoming trial.
These changes of setting are quite as dramatic as the development of the plot: in some sense, they are the plot, more so than Dutch's unpredictable but monotonous mood swings that set the killing action. There is less and less that Billy can learn from Dutch, but his apprenticeship does give him the opportunity to see more of the world than he did from his narrow Bronx tenement.
The other remarkable feature of this book is Billy's narrative style. The long, run-on sentences that sound excited and reflective at once are clearly the voice of a young man eager to set down all he's getting to see, while trying to make some sense of his experience. The trouble is, Billy never quite succeeds at the latter endeavor.
Billy's voice is central to the story and apparently, to judge from a cursory survey of the book's reception so far, it has sufficient appeal to elicit a chorus of uncritical praise from book reviewers. They are too dazzled by the polished technique, however, to notice that this gangster story has little more depth than a B-movie.