Thursday, September 04, 2008

Billy Bathgate

You often get puzzled glances when you ask for a Guardian in Saltcoats, but they're piled high in Byres Road so I read a book on the way there, and the paper on the way home.

Stevenston, Kilwinning, Glengarnock... I'm reading Billy Bathgate. That's a picture of Dutch Shultz.

It's one of those books, you want to read bits of it out loud to perfect strangers. Like the passage when Bo Weinberg, as the concrete hardens around his feet, tells Billy about escaping from the scene of a murder he'd committed, into Grand Central Station:

...people in every direction making trains, standing waiting for the gates to open, the train announcements echoing in all that noisy mumble, and I attach myself to the crowd waiting for the five thirty two and I slip the piece in some guy's pocket, I swear that's what I did, in his topcoat, he's holding his briefcase in his left hand he's got his World Telegram folded for reading in his right hand and just as the gate opens and everyone presses forward in it goes so gently he doesn't even feel it and I saunter away as he gets through the gate and rushes down the ramp for his seat and, can't you see it, hello dear I'm home my God Alfred what's this in your pocket eek a gun!

Gangster books are rarely as good as the films, (and I've not seen the film of this book). Godfather I and II are superb pictures, but the novels which inspired them would be, without the films, forgotten airport novels. It happens that before Billy Bathgate I read another gangster novel called Trinities, which had a splendid theme, and some great moments, but dreadfully cack-handed philosophical detours and piss-poor characterization.

Maybe I'm just saying that Nick Tosches, and even Mario Puzo, are nowhere near E.L. Doctorow's league. As writers of literature. But are they working in the same genre? Is there a gangster genre?

Maybe. Let's just say for now that the crew hanging outside Satriale's would have loved Bo's story about the commuter and the gun.