Last month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I’ve been plugging some huge gaps in my reading lately. E.L. Doctorow is one of America’s finest contemporary novelists, and I’m certainly in awe of him. But Billy Bathgate has been sitting untouched on my shelf since my wife bought it for me several years back. I put that right on a recent vacation.Learn more about Tony Richards and his work at his website and blog.
In case you don’t know the story, the eponymous hero is a fifteen year old boy from the Bronx who gets recruited into the Dutch Schultz gang, first as a kind of gopher and mascot, and finally as a close confidante to some of their biggest secrets. But things start to go wrong when he falls in love with Schultz’s latest squeeze -- a bored socialite called Drew -- putting them both in danger.
As always, when writing about times past, Doctorow goes further than evoking atmosphere and detail, though he certainly does both of those superbly. He captures the attitudes of the age, the pace, the peculiarities, making you realize that people lived very different lives to ours a handful of decades back.
His real brilliance, however, lies in his portrayal of Schultz. A lesser novelist would describe him merely as a snarling monster. Doctorow goes much further, making him into a conundrum. He certainly has his vicious side, all the more frightening because it is wholly unpredictable. But Doctorow shows a different, more thoughtful aspect of the famous mobster too, leaving you with the impression of a man who behaves a certain way because he feels he has to. Because he feels he has no other way of leaving his mark on this world. It’s not a sympathetic portrait, but it’s certainly a complex one. Doctorow is writing about the passing of an age -- one dotted about with legendary figures -- and does it masterfully.
Another writer that I’ve always been in awe of is Patricia Highsmith. Anyone smart enough to think up the plot of Strangers on a Train at age nineteen has earned that. But, for some bizarre reason, I’ve never got around to her most famous work, The Talented Mr. Ripley. I corrected that on the same vacation.
Yes, it’s excellent. Clever, psychologically astute, and so evocative of the bohemian life of young Americans in Europe in the Fifties that you ache to be there. But I’m afraid I finished up with a couple of minor gripes. I simply did not believe the very final part, the stuff about the ‘recently discovered will.’ Herbert Greenleaf runs a business, and surely would not be that gullible. Sorry, Patty, just don’t buy it. And in later Ripley novels, she resorts to plain prose -- barely an adjective in sight -- to stunning effect, and I missed that here. Ripley might be talented, but Highsmith became even more so during her illustrious career.
The Page 69 Test: Tony Richards' Dark Rain.