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Billy Bathgate Reader’s Guide

By E.L. Doctorow

Billy Bathgate by E.L. Doctorow

READERS GUIDE

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Billy Bathgate has been described as “Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer with more poetry, Holden Caulfield with more zest and spirit” (New York Times Book Review). How would you describe Billy? How is he like—or unlike—Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, and Holden Caulfield?
 
2. Trace Billy’s evolution—from Billy Behan, a poor kid living in the Bronx, to Billy Bathgate, a street smart, gun-toting member of Dutch Schultz’s infamous gang. How does Billy change? In what ways does he stay the same?
 
3. In Billy Bathgate, our setting is New York in the 1930s. Discuss the Bronx, Manhattan, Onondaga, Saratoga, and New Jersey, as seen through Doctorow’s—and Billy’s—eyes.
 
4. Circumstance and fate play large roles in the novel. Of his chance meeting with Dutch, Billy says, “I couldn’t have been planning to juggle continuously every day of my idling life until Mr. Schultz arrived, it had just happened. But now that it had I saw it as destiny. The world worked by chance but every chance had a prophetic heft to it” (29). Discuss this quote in the context of Dutch and Billy’s introduction, and also throughout the course of the novel. Do you think Billy’s success was based on circumstance and fate? Or was it something more?
 
5. Early in their relationship, Dutch calls Billy his “good-luck kid” (57). But by the end of the novel, Billy realizes “I didn’t know him when he had a handle on things and everything was as he wanted it to be. . . . [Dutch] had risen and he was falling. And the Dutchman’s life with me was his downfall” (280-281). Is Billy right about Dutch? Did Billy bring him any good luck? Or did Dutch bring more good luck to Billy’s life?
 
6. Discuss Billy and Dutch’s relationship over the course of the novel. Why did Dutch take on Billy? Why did Billy stay loyal to Dutch? What did both gain—or lose—from their relationship?
 
7. Similarly, talk about Billy’s relationship with Otto Berman. What does Billy learn from him? In the end, do you think Billy felt closer to Dutch or Otto? Discuss your reasoning.
 
8. Before falling for Drew, Billy considers Rebecca, a girl he once paid for sex, his girlfriend. How does his relationship with Becky change, and what does it say about Billy’s personal evolution? Think about this quote, from the night of Billy’s neighborhood party, as you discuss: “I reflected as I lay there that my life was changing more quickly and in more ways than I could keep up with. Or was it all just one thing, as if everything had the same charge to it, so that if I was remade to Mr. Schultz’s touch, Becky was remade to mine, and there was only one infinitely extending flash of conformation” (102).
 
9. Billy seems to struggle with finding his place in Dutch’s gang—and the world. Upon arriving in a posh hotel in Onondaga, he says, “I loved this luxury” (117) and throughout the story he is attracted to the glitz and glamour that comes with being part of Dutch’s group. But then he thinks, “The only thing that cheered me up was the sight of a cockroach walking up the wall . . . because then I knew The Onondaga Hotel was not all it was cracked up to be” (119). Talk about these conflicting impressions and what they say about Billy as a character.
 
10. Drew (or Lola or Mrs. Preston) has tremendous influence on Billy throughout the course of the novel. Discuss the evolution of their relationship—from mother/son to charge/custodian to lover. Do you think Billy truly loved Drew? Did she love him? What about Dutch? Discuss Drew’s relationship with him.
 
11. Of Drew, Billy says: “She’s not after anything, she’s not naturally afraid like most girls you’d meet or jealous or any of that. She does whatever she wants, and then she gets bored and then she does something else” (242). Is this accurate? Why or why not?
 
12. Billy continuously proves his loyalty to Dutch, and though he thinks of leaving the gang at one point, he quickly dismisses it: “I knew I would do nothing of the kind . . . . life held no grandeur for a simple thief, I had not gotten this far and whoever had hung this charm over my life had not chosen me because I was a cowardly double-crosser” (271). Why doesn’t he cut his losses and run? Is he afraid of Dutch? Is he just fiercely loyal? Or is it something else?
 
13. Billy survives—both with the gang and with his life in the end of the novel—because he is loyal, he makes smart choices, and he’s adaptable. He thinks: “When the situation changed, would I change with it? Yes, the answer was always yes. And that gave me the idea that maybe all identification is temporary because you went through a life of changing situations” (138). Discuss this quote in the context of the novel. Does it ring true for Billy? Does it hold any meaning for your life?
 
14. At the end of the novel, we learn that Billy, an adult, has been telling the story of his teenage self. He reflects: “I find some consolation . . . in having told here the truth about everything of my life with Dutch Schultz . . . . I have told the truth of what I have told in the words and the truth of what I have not told which resides in the words” (321). What are we to make of that? Have we heard the whole truth? What is gained—or lost—by Billy as an adult telling the story of Billy as a teenager? Why do you think Doctorow chose to tell his story in this way?
 
15. At the end of Billy Bathgate, we learn that Billy finished high school, went on to an Ivy League college, became a second lieutenant in the Army and is a man of a “certain renown” (321). And to top it all off, he had a son with Drew, who is delivered to his doorstep a year after they have stopped speaking. Where you surprised with the end of Billy’s story? Why or why not?

 
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