When Nick Valenti put his 15-year-old son on the street to teach him a lesson, the tough-as-nails cop didn't dream he was setting the vulnerable Billy on a months-long odyssey that would force him to come to terms with an intimidating adult world and his place in it.
That’s how I summarized my completed novella, Billy of the Tulips, for two publishers to whom I submitted the 24,000-word manuscript.
Set in 1957, the pivotal year that introduced Sputnik, passenger jet travel and the laser, Nick and his son do not enjoy a healthy relationship. Billy is a senstive boy more comfortable in his tulip garden than on the athletic field. The book begins with a fraught blow-up between the two, ending with the father driving Billy from the house. The rest of the story unfolds in a series of letters the boy writes to his younger sister.
As Billy makes frequent moves to find refuge, the locale shifts—a high school boiler room, a greasy-spoon diner, a small women’s college, the home of a predatory adult, the sprawling estate of a rock ‘n’ roll heavyweight. Billy encounters unconventional characters unlike any he knew before. The Puerto Rican kitchen worker, for example, whose badgering drives Billy further into himself . . . the deviant custodian who’s adept at both befriending and betraying . . . the college professor who becomes the closest thing to a mentor, if Billy can trust him . . . Lazy Liz and The Maestro, drug and alcohol-fueled rock ‘n’ rollers who live in a self-imposed state of moral decay. In an intense, climactic confrontation with a group of deer hunters on the wooded grounds of The Maestro’s estate, Billy comes to terms with the adult world and with the realization that evil exists only if you let it.
Billy’s is the voice of a generation fascinated with UFO sightings and Elvis Presley records. But his letters also record the interplay of innocence and iniquity, including a first sexual skirmish.
The photo above captures something of the mood underlying Billy and his tulips. It was researched by my daughter, Wendy. To many, this could be just a picture of a boy walking in a garden. Or you can see it the way Wendy does:
The tulips are colorless, the colors to be discovered. The boy, his back to the camera, speaks to the observer who does not know him and is not allowed to be aware of what he will come to know . . . his ability to see possibilities, to see a different life. The others in his life lack "seeing” and can only "look." The boy is positioned off to the side in his world, which teems with flora, life, beauty, hope and change, illustrating that he chooses to walk a path of his own . . . not down the middle . . . not the path he may have chosen if he hadn't been given the gift of insight . . . not the path chosen by his forbears, the path they followed because they could see no other way.
Billy of the Tulips is a thought-provoking journey for all of us who have made pivotal life decisions about vocation, relationships and happiness.