Juggler’s Code

Billy Bathgate

by E.L. Doctorow
Random House, 323 pp., $19.95

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 Though Prohibition has been repealed, Schultz conducts his beer business as a matter of compelled purchases, contriving to make even lawful activity unlawful.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 …

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