In sentences with nicely clutched transmissions, a long limousine runs, one night in 1935, onto a New York pier, where it smoothly transfers its human cargo to a short tugboat. A boy of fifteen, leaping by impulse onto the boat, is about to undergo the crucial event of his life. He will watch a man die in the muted ritual of one of Dutch Schultz’s “necessary business murders.” The gangster is going to kill one of his own hired killers, Bo Weinberg. Billy, the boy looking down from the boat’s rail, sees “a lighted pucker of green angry water.” Schultz, entering the cabin below him, has turned on its light. Going inside himself, he watches preparations for the murder by “the almost-green shards of one work light.” It is more frightening to be thrown about on a vibrating boat than to lie in the sand at night, like Nick Carraway, thinking of the green light that beckoned Gatsby over the water. Nick, already an adult, meets a Gatsby who has covered up his criminal past. Billy, a streetwise boy but still a boy, meets Dutch Schultz at the height of his lawlessness. Yet Billy is in some ways less dazzled than Nick by the glamour of the man beyond rules.
In the dingy Bronx neighborhood where Billy lives, there is not much for a teenager to do but shoplift with impunity, since the neighborhood has “a precinct house of cops whose honor it was never if they could help it to breathe the air out-of-doors.” What tames the cops is the presence in Billy’s neighborhood of one of Schultz’s beer warehouses. Though Prohibition has been repealed, Schultz conducts his beer business as a matter of compelled purchases, contriving to make even lawful activity unlawful. Schultz does not just break this or that specific law; he exists in a realm whose contours are not related to any other government’s. Billy, like the other boys on his street, dreams of entering that magic realm—and his charmed life lets him in.
Billy is a natural athlete, though not a team player. A runner and acrobat, a sleight-of-hand artist, he has worked longest on one specialty—juggling two rubber balls, an orange, an egg, and a stone. The different weights and shapes of the objects make for constantly varying hefts of muscle, conformity of fingers. The trick is not only to juggle them smoothly enough to suggest that they are all the same, but to cover up the fact that this is difficult. Thus the better he gets at it, the less can any audience but himself appreciate Billy’s performance. Schultz, in one of his rare visits to the beer drop, happens to see Billy doing this trick. Billy, suspended in the enjoyment of his own achievement, observes Schultz and chooses the moment when, before Schultz turns away, he should feign observing him and pay tribute by sailing each of the objects off into the air behind him. He is now the ball thrown up for future juggling—though Schultz, at this first encounter, just laughs and gives him ten dollars.
Emboldened by the gift, Billy seeks out Schultz at the center of his numbers operation. Billy gets in by a ruse, but one that is self-defeating, since it shows that he knows too much about the center. Luckily, “Abbadabba” Berman, the mathematical wizard who invented Schultz’s numbers system, reads properly the boy’s admiring effrontery and takes him on as a messenger, to be groomed for higher service.
Berman is all calculation and control, but he has nothing to control apart from Schultz, who is all appetite and impulse. Berman is no more like Schultz than an orange is like a rubber ball; yet only by the smooth interplay of these two can the Realm be maintained. Billy is determined to insert himself as another heterogeneous element into their system, not knowing himself whether he is a rubber ball, to bounce out of it again, or an egg. Wizard and king, Berman and Schultz groom him for “investiture.” He learns the etiquette of their court, more willful in its rules than society at large, yet with the heat of personal encounter behind each ritual move. Billy’s apprentice role gives him more intimacy with his leaders, and less responsibility for their actions, than any other gang member has. But each mark of favor is a new danger. The first two murders Billy sees Dutch commit unsettle (and thrill) him, but he can escape the internal burden of the witness because one murder is so carefully planned that delegates commit it and the other is so sudden, in one of Schultz’s earthquake angers, that it seems more a natural accident than a human act.
But the third murder is different. Billy only witnesses this one by slipping onto the tugboat unbidden. This time. Schultz is methodical, almost didactic, in his observance of the forms (encasing the victim’s feet in concrete). And this time there is another witness who is not part of the gang—Bo Weinberg’s society girl-friend, picked up with him by accident. And this time, finally, while Dutch takes the woman downstairs to rape her, Billy talks to the victim, and is given a moral imperative—to protect the woman.
Schultz finds that Bo Weinberg’s woman, Drew Preston, is morally incapable of being raped. She anticipates outrage. This makes Billy’s job of protecting her more difficult, since she has no sense of danger in her refined experiments with dangerous people. So far, money and youth and beauty have kept her invulnerable. She thinks they always will. The uneducated but streetwise Billy knows better than that. “What do we have to be protected from?” she asks. “The likes of us,” he answers. He is afraid for her as well as for himself when Schultz takes the two of them north to corrupt the New York State district where he is about to stand trial. After the uprooting night of murderous travel on the water, they are moving inland, taking their civilized diseases to the Indian (“Onondaga,” the town, with its statue, named after the man). Billy remembers musing as they drove:
I had never been out of it [the city] before, never had the distance, it is a station on the amphibian journey, it is where we come out sliming, it is where we bask and feed and make our tracks and do our dances and leave our coprolitic spires, before moving on into the black mountains of high winds and no rain.
Schultz, raining money on the natives, turns Onondaga into Hadleyburg, though members of the gang feel out of place in the country. Billy at first argues that “this was America too” to a doubting mobster, but he is dismayed when he finds that “there was nothing to do but good”; he will later decide that “the country had damaged my senses.” Schultz, the benevolent local patron, soon has bankers, policemen, and preachers eating out of his hand. He ingratiates himself by, among other things, sending Billy to Bible class, where he hears about “the desert gangs, their troubles with the law, their hustles and scams, the ways they worked each other over, and the grandiose claims they made for themselves.”
In Onondaga, site of Part Two in the novel, Billy learns to use a handgun at the local police range, and gets to know Bo Weinberg’s woman. Drew Preston, cultured, amoral, not only comes from a different world but seems of a different species. He tells her, in a passage at the very center of the novel, about his pledge to Bo Weinberg. We finally hear the conclusion to the story begun on the opening pages, the story of that night on the tugboat, how the dying gangster extracted from Billy “the first act of mercy in my life.”
In Part Three, set in Saratoga during the races, Billy has to redeem his pledge and protect Drew, though that goes against the entire gangster training he has submitted to. “Yet what was any of this speculation [about saving her] but the symptom of my own state of mind? I would think of nothing like this if my conscience was clear and I was intent only to advance myself.” Billy must go against the conscience prescribed for him by the gang as Huck Finn defies the conscience instilled in him when he saves Nigger Jim In Onondaga Billy and Drew form an alliance while serving Dutch and Abbadabba, just as Huck and Jim serve and see through the King and the Duke.
Doctorow, like Twain, like Dickens, sees adult possibilities in “the boy’s book”—the tale of an orphan, not yet socialized into ordinary adult life, who acquires an outlaw mentor. This formula, at its best, combines psychological subtlety (the study of formative experiences undergone in a state of peril), with social criticism (the “normal” looks odd if not crazy when seen from outside). Thus Billy, outside accepted moral systems, must create his own code of responsibility, as Huck does. And Schultz, by stripping the pretense from preachers and bankers and the police, only “corrupts” Onondaga by re-creating the conditions of its original settlement, when Onondaga’s land as well as his name was seized, so that his story could be distorted into the myths of “ordinary” life.
Schultz wants not only to corrupt Onondaga but to incorporate it, to eat it and to have it too, including all its values and assumptions. So he decides to join the Catholic Church, to have any “extra edge” it might give him: “I don’t understand Latin, but I don’t understand Hebrew neither, so why not both?” But he must keep his first “edge” too: “This mustn’t get to my mother—Irving, your mother neither, the mothers shouldn’t know this, they wouldn’t understand.” Drew is only amoral. Dutch is panmoral; he wants in on all the games in town. He is the American “consumer” in many senses, subject only to his own voraciousness. He endorses by destroying. Death even attends the ceremony of his baptism, which Doctorow puts to brilliant plot use: the Italian who comes to that event as his literal “godfather” recognizes Drew and Knows now who killed Bo Weinberg. The scene with which we began works out its logic in Dutch Schultz’s death at the end.
Drew, acting as Billy’s sister/aunt/ mother, dresses him up for the various Huck Finn charades of respectability in Onondaga, while in secret (especially from Schultz) she becomes his lover. Twain, like Dickens, observed the sexual conventions of Victorian fiction, which meant he had to make “boy” mean the oldest possible prepubescent. Doctorow, released from such constraints, makes Billy the youngest possible postpubescent, one who has known sex before he meets Drew. His “girl” in the neighborhood lives in an orphanage (and is named, with a flirt at Twain, Rebecca—“Becky” in his mind). Drew, Billy knows, is both below and above anything so ordinary as “love.” He has to forge entirely new kinds of relations to other people, as he forges his unique sense of responsibility. He does not save Drew because he sleeps with her (the erotic “wanes pathetically in terror”), but to honor his own pledge. In the same way, he accepts the fatherly guidance of Abbadabba Berman, yet he knows instantly when Berman is trying to kill Drew, and he knows there will be no regret on Berman’s part if he succeeds.
The unpredictable Schultz could kill Billy at any time; but predictably, wanting it both ways, Schultz would certainly regret it afterward. In fact, during his rambling deathbed monologue, overheard by others, Dutch leaves Billy clues to the places where various treasures are hidden. The boy’s book devices extend here even to touches of Robert Louis Stevenson, as Billy undertakes a final hunt for “pirate swag.”
This is Doctorow’s first superbly constructed novel. The first-person narrator reassembles boyhood impressions, moving back and forth over the year of his gang activity with easy recall yet with an adult’s remembering vocabulary. The tone is consistent, convincing despite a lingering tendency to the precious—adverbs like “workingly,” wordplays like “culled cash, or cold cash, and then it turned into a gold cache.” Doctorow has previously used an arch third-person narrator (in Ragtime), or a Kerouacian first-person (in Loon Lake). He has not been able to sustain the first-person tone, so he alternates narrators (not only in Loon Lake but in World’s Fair). Even in The Book of Daniel, the first-person narration was interrupted by dissertation notes and other intrusive gimmicks. But here the story flows; the dialogue is mainly filtered through the narrator’s memory, continuous with everything else recalled; sentences glide on for a page and a half at a time with no sense of effort. The prose is itself charged with the “three-dimensionality of danger” Billy finds in Dutch Schultz’s presence. When, for instance, he picks up his first gun, Billy muses:
As Mr. Schultz told me later in a moment of reminiscence the first time is breathtaking, you have this weight in your hand and you think in your calculating mind if they only believe me I will be able to bring this thing off, you are still your old self, you see, you are the punk with the punk’s mind, you are relying on them to help you, to teach you how to do it, and that is how it begins, that badly, and maybe it’s in your eyes or your trembling hand, so the moment poses itself, like a prize to be taken by any of you, hanging up there like the bride’s bouquet. Because the gun means nothing until it’s really yours. And then what happens, you understand that if you don’t make it yours you are dead, you have created the circumstance, but it has its own free-standing rage, available to anyone, and this is what you take into yourself, like an anger that they’ve done this to you, the people who are staring at your gun, that it’s their intolerable crime to be the people you are waving this gun at. And at that moment you are no longer a punk, you have found the anger that was really in you all the time, and you are transformed, you are not play-acting, you are angrier than you have ever been in your entire life, and this great wail of fury rises in your chest and fills your throat and in this moment you are no longer a punk, and the gun is yours and the rage is in you where it belongs and the fuckers know they are dead men if they don’t give you what you want, I mean you are so crazy jerking-off mad at this point you don’t even know yourself, as why should you because you are a new man, a Dutch Schultz if ever there was one.
Performing himself to us in this way, Billy is always the juggler inside and outside his own action, making it look easy. He throws himself out of his little world into Dutch Schultz’s hurricane of adult strivings, “translates” himself into that foreign mind. Yet the same ability that let him launch himself out of his own first ambit makes him maintain a disengagement from the criminal mind he enters. In a nation that thinks of itself as having a special destiny, he can only stay true to his own sense of balance by refusing to be absorbed in the communal myths of destiny—that of the gang as well as that of “one’s country.” He remains the only one who can appreciate his own performance, can be the juggler and the juggled, the judge and the judged.