Cover image for Write letter to Billy
Write letter to Billy
Olson, Toby.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Minneapolis, MN : Coffee House Press ; Saint Paul, MN : Distributor, Consortium Book Sales & Distribution, [2000]

Physical Description:
407 pages ; 23 cm
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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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A wonderful story of what family means, of the flesh-level pain of sibling rivalry, and the discovery of love. It is a fantastic and beautiful tapestry of some of the most imaginative and precise prose writing going on in America today. Toby Olson stands tall among the handful of writers I most admire and respect.--Richard Wiley

Write A Letter to Billy is a delectably complicated maze that kept me spellbound from start to finish. Only the most sophisticated of writers could manage to combine the seriousness of a quest for identity and meaning with the intensity of a thriller, not to mention an excursion into deep-sea diving and the resort life of southern California. Once again, Toby Olson has written a terrific novel full of peril and surprise, offering startling revelations and sudden expansions of the heart and mind."--Lynne Sharon Schwartz

United with a long-lost teenage daughter, a retired Navy underwater repair specialist investigates a mysterious list his father had written just before his death. Some of the items are crossed off, but one of the unfinished tasks haunts him: "Write letter to Billy." What had his father planned to tell him? What he learns changes his life forever.

Influenced by D.H. Lawrence, William Faulkner, and Charles Dickens, Toby Olson's pointed examination of memory and consciousness illustrates how the unraveling of external mystery leads to self discovery.

Toby Olson , winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, has published eight books of fiction and twenty-two books of poetry. His work has appeared in over two hundred newspapers, magazines, and anthologies. Olson's novels include At Sea , Dorit in Lesbos, Utah, and The Woman Who Escaped from Shame. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and North Truro, Massachusetts.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

This is an odd but powerful story, overcomplicated and occasionally melodramatic, but it draws readers in and holds them. Bill is a navy man, just retired, reacquainting himself with the papers and objects he'd stored away from his adoptive parents, both now dead, and with Jen, the teenage daughter of a long-ago liaison. Bill takes Jen with him to California, where she can learn scuba diving while he rustles through his parents' detritus. A list Bill finds of things to do, written by his dad, captures his attention--the ninth item is the letter of the title. Things begin to surface: not only Bill's memories of his parents and some unanswered questions but a hotel maid's suicide and some old property that seem to be related to the list. All of this swirls together in Bill's relationship with the artless, eager Jen, who is learning to be a daughter to his tentative fathering. A huge denouement with a literal evil twin is perhaps a bit too Dickensian, but questions resolve themselves in unexpected and satisfying ways. --GraceAnne A. DeCandido

Publisher's Weekly Review

PEN/Faulkner winner Olson (Dorit in Lesbos) attempts to marry mystery, self-exploration and self-discovery in this overstuffed novel set in California in the early 1980s. After his discharge from the navy, 40-year-old Bill, a diver, plans to spend a year in the Antilles. But a letter from an old fling living in Racine, Wis., informs him that he is the father of her 15-year-old daughter, JenDand Jen wants to meet him. Bill was himself adopted by an insatiably curious inventor and his beautiful wife, a theatrical ingenue, and family ties are important to him. To get to know Jen better, he decides to take her on a road trip to California. Once there, they stop in El Monte, where Bill was raised, in order to go through some of his father's things that have been in storage for 15 years. A quick perusal of the boxes and crates reveals a mysterious list written by his father relating to the unsolved drowning death of Susan Rennert, a hotel chambermaid. Jen helps Bill investigate his father's past, touring newspaper morgues and old forgotten sections of California cities, working through his father's list. In the process, the two become very close, forcing Bill to reflect on how empty his life has been. He realizes, too, that he never really knew his parents, as he talks to people who did not hold them in the same high esteem he did. Although the mystery is solved in the end, the plot depends too heavily upon coincidence to truly satisfy. Olson also awkwardly introduces elements of the supernatural and weighs down the narrative with long, drawn-out descriptive passages. Although the novel falls short as a work of self-discovery or suspense, however, it succeeds as an unusual investigation of the nature of fatherhood. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

When a book begins with the sentence "It's a long story," you might be fooled into thinking that it will cut immediately to the chase, with a minimal mincing of words. Not so in this "self-discovery" mystery by a PEN/Faulkner Award-winning author. Yet Olson wrings a satisfying emotional product from his characters, as protagonist Bill, a retired-but-still-young U.S. Navy diver, discovers a cryptic list left behind by his dead father of clues he ties to a past unsolved murder. He also discovers that his youthful fling with promiscuous WAVE Carol has produced a daughter, Jennifer, now 15 years old. Bill and Jennifer team up for a long-overdue dad-daughter vacation to bond belatedly, and together they decipher the list of clues (save one), ultimately solving the complex mystery. Suitable for all libraries.DMargee Smith, Grace A. Dow Memorial Lib., Midland, MI (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One My Father's List 1. Look into blossom gradation and etching. 2. Go over it with Bev again. 3. Laguna: check local newspaper morgue. 4. Leonard has batteries. 5. Rennert: why Susan? 6. Could it really have been Housewares? 7. Weather: moon, wind, tides. 8. The question of the sheet. 9. Write letter to Billy. 10. The History of the American Theater (TAT: Its History) what? 11. Time longer than rope. 12. Go see Blevins. 1. It's a long story.     I'd driven to Wisconsin from Philadelphia, where I'd finished up my twenty years plus three and been discharged into retirement at forty. I was just seventeen when I entered the Navy in San Diego, 1958, and though my time had spanned those infamous war years, I'd been a landlocked and domestic sailor for the most part.     Time in New London and Corpus Christi, Great Lakes in Chicago, a brief stint in Seattle, those two tours in Philadelphia, and only a year at Guantanamo, and that in peacetime.     When I'd returned to Philly, eight years after being with Aaron there, I had rank and age. Younger, hotshot divers were available, and I managed a recruitment position for myself, spending my last hitch on Broad Street, just a few blocks from City Hall.     I sat behind a desk under fluorescents in a razor-sharp dress uniform, the backs of full-sized cardboard cutouts in the front window across the room. Viewed from the street, they were happy sailors, outlined in sea-green neon. That was something. The modern Navy. And yet those who stumbled through the door, hesitant and bright-eyed, seemed no different from the self I'd been, all those years ago.     I was no lost child then. Though my parents were older, well into their seventies when I enlisted, they'd managed to stay with the ways of youth through connection to the sources of memory and the world outside and had stayed close to me that way. My father, Andy, was an information hound. Our house in El Monte was full of instruction manuals and specialty magazines. The radio, tuned to news shows, spilled constant information, and once he'd retired from Ball Brothers Glass, where he'd supervised an assembly line, my father had focused on experiment, trying out those things he'd been gathering facts about over the years.     It was through him I'd gotten a taste for underwater work. He'd taught me welding and brazing, his thorough enthusiasm for the mechanical, just anything with moving parts, and once he'd found an old regulator, repaired it, and rigged up a tank. He'd checked it out in the bathtub, head down at the drain and bubbles rising. Then he'd given me a chance, holding the tank up off my back as I drifted under; then I found I could breathe in water. And I remember sitting beside him in the evenings, studying deep-diving magazines, his voice full of seductive details, our fingers on all those glossy photographs.     I suspect he got my mother's initial attention in a similar way, not through good looks surely, or wealth. He'd been a poor boy, and though he was tall and lean, he had that slight limp, an unfortunate overbite, and hardly any chin at all. His attraction was all in his pure interest in everything. He was a very good listener.     My mother was a few years younger than my father and had been a successful ingenue when she was a girl. And she'd managed, even through some serious drinking and early aging skin, to get such roles into her thirties. She'd come to Los Angeles from a farm in South Dakota against the wishes of her parents around 1910. Magazines, songbooks, and a few biographies: star-struck, she said. It was one of those stories.     She'd gotten a few bit parts in silent films, but it was the legitimate theater that drew her, small repertory companies in Hollywood and Pasadena at that time. Then came the twenties, the fast life and drink, and by the time she was forty she was finished. It was not that she couldn't act, couldn't have taken on the personality of mature women. She was that. It was her face and a certain way with gesture and articulation that couldn't seem to change, to step forward into appropriate age.     She had a pure youthful enthusiasm, one that had come to its visual qualities on stage but was deeper in her than that. It was in her eyes and smile, her quick expressions even when she was in her sixties. It had something to do with constant wonder and surprise. She wore a younger face, just under those lines that marked her maturity, and that face was clearly visible when she spoke, smiled, or laughed. Seen from a distance or without knowing her, she seemed insincere, but though it was that perception that took her off the stage, it was a false one. It was not that her emotional development had been arrested, nor that the growing richness of mind brought naturally through age was not hers. It was her heart, I think, that remained fresh, something to do with an utter lack of cynicism.     There was a prized photograph. It hung with many others on the wall near the foot of my parents' bed. It was taken on the evening they met for the first time, in the lobby of a small avant-garde theater in Pasadena, an opening of The Pelican in 1935.     It was intermission, and the lobby was crowded, but off to the side near the concession table you could find my mother. She wore a long, dark dress, a clinging knit, I think, and had a wine glass in her hand. She was leaning against a pillar, her head cocked to the side coyly but a clear attention in her face. My father stood before her, thin and straight and wearing a stylish suit. He was speaking, his hands forming something in the air between them.     Theater was just another of my father's interests. He'd come across an article in Popular Mechanics , something to do with hydraulic pulley-and-chain mechanisms used to mount some extravagant opera in New York City. He'd devoured that, moved forward to set design, its history, then to various acting techniques. In a while he was applying his knowledge to live performances, studying stage management, the influence of famous, dead actors on those currently at work. He'd read something about my mother, various reviews written more than ten years before. She'd worked mostly in the experimental theater then, and that had grabbed his interest too, as well as all the rest.     "Andy listened," she was fond of saying. "And when he finally. spoke, he knew everything. All those years and plays. They came alive again for me. I knew at once I'd never let him go."     He had just turned fifty when they met, she was forty-seven, a first marriage for both of them. She was down-and-out, living on borrowed money. He took her to his house in El Monte, set up a theater room for her, a place for photographs, albums, and clippings. And in the evenings they'd talk about the theater. She'd tell her stories, bright-eyed and young again, and he'd fill in those details of history and mechanics, providing the solid stage on which her stories could turn and vibrate.     She'd get a little drunk at times; she always had bottles in the house, but that was okay with my father. "It's the theater," he once said to me. "A highly charged and emotional life. Like diving. There's a constant tension when you're doing it, then opening up to relaxation afterward." I remember his blinking as he looked at me, aware that the analogy might set me off in a wrong direction.     "It could be eating too much," he said, "reading, some other obsessive activity. Just a little excess to relieve tension." He leaned on the word obsessive . He was reading Freud and others at the time.     It was late in the thirties when they decided on adoption. Both were over fifty by then, and though they made an exhaustive search of agencies all up and down the California coast, their circumstance was frowned upon and they had no luck. But there was my father and his exhaustive study. They didn't give up, and in time he found some connection near Chicago, not quite legal, I think, and probably expensive. They had little funds. Neither of them cared much for savings. But they managed somehow, and in 1940 I joined them, my memory of life beginning in that cluttered house in El Monte.     There'd been a Navy recruiter when I was a high school junior. They came to high schools looking for prospects in those days. He'd had bright eyes, like my father, energetic in that way, and when he learned of my interest in deep-diving, he'd looked into that, then sent me information, and I'd spent most of my senior year anticipating, reading, and taking scuba lessons at the local pool. I'd enlisted the day after graduation.     It was not all that hard to leave home. My parents had been so whole in their lives, my mother even past one life when I'd come to them, that through the years they'd managed a distance from me that I've come to feel as respectful. They were there when I needed them, but they gave me room of the same kind they gave each other. We were close, but never in a pathological way. Our evenings were like a gathering of very good friends, two of whom were lovers, for purposes of rich discussion, some tender council, enjoyment, and learning.     I'd been in seven years, was twenty-four years old and stationed in Corpus Christi, Texas, when they died, my mother, then my father only a few days after. They were in their late seventies and cancer had gotten her, a mercifully brief illness. I don't know what the cause was in my father's case. "He just seemed to fold his tent when she was gone," the doctor said. She'd died in the hospital in her sleep, and they'd found my father at home beside her empty bed. I'd tried to call him with my travel plans for her funeral, then had called the doctor when I couldn't reach him. The medical reports and a brief, joint obituary held the story, though not nearly in as much detail as my father would have approved.     I flew home and buried them, then spent a week cleaning the house out and listed it with a Realtor. As a place, it held nothing for me without them. They'd left a brief will: the car and house went to me, my mother's clothing and jewelry, anything I wanted of my father's. My mother's past, contained neatly in albums and file folders, went to the El Monte Historical Society. I kept that one picture, the two of them meeting for the first time at the theater, and I packed my father's gear in boxes, sixty-two of them, in as careful categories as I could manage. He would have liked that. I drove them to a warehouse on the outskirts of town, sold the old car at a lot across the street, then walked back with the money and paid for five years of storage. I took a bus to the airport, a good long ride. The Realtor had a couple of interested buyers. I'd call him as soon as I got back to Corpus. Dead and supposedly gone, and yet it was no more than a week after my return that I met and took up with Carol, who was not at all unlike my mother. She was a Wave, a lab technician at the Naval Hospital, just a month short of discharge. She'd done her four years, used them to find herself. She'd enlisted after an abortion. Her father had thrown her out.     "I was a little loose in high school," she told me after I'd met her at the NCO club, took her to dinner and a movie, then in a few days slept with her. I was twenty-four, she just a year younger. "Bill," she said, as we danced a cowboy foxtrot at a downtown bar, "let's just go somewhere and do it."     We went at it hot and heavy for a few weeks, but we managed to talk about things too. I'd be staying in. She knew that, and she had a job lined up at a small lab in Bloomington, Indiana. She was not going back to her parents' place in Racine, not for a while at least.     When the day of her discharge came, I drove her to the airport and kissed her good-bye at the gate. She smiled when she looked up at me, no wish for lingering in her expression. She'd gotten rid of her uniform and was wearing a simple and efficient dress. Everything was in front of her, and I was already in the past.     From Corpus, I was transferred to Seattle and some interesting work. All my training was behind me by then, but I picked up things on my own. It was my father's influence, I guess. I studied metallurgy and hydroelectricity, the physics of volume and pressure. When I dove down for repairs, I knew things that other divers didn't know, and while such knowledge might not have made me more efficient, it certainly made the work more interesting.     Then there was scuba and free diving. Nothing in Philadelphia or Chicago, but by the time I had my year at Guantanamo I'd been in for a while, was a first-class petty officer with some authority, my own room, and considerable liberty. I took leave and headed for some islands in the Bahamas, where I dove for an entire month, stripping myself slowly of all gear until I was down to only flippers, weight belt, snorkel, and mask. I made ninety-five feet by the end of that month, and from then on every leave was a diving one. When I was close to discharge and was sitting behind that desk on Broad Street, I had plans for a year in the Netherlands Antilles--Aruba and Bonaire. No future beyond that counted for much. I'd have a good enough pension and I'd saved the money I'd gotten from the sale of my parents' house. With interest and the few bonds I'd purchased over the years, I'd be all right for a long while.     I had a cheap apartment, the top floor of Mrs. Venuti's house in South Philadelphia, and a new car. I'd be free of the Navy soon and all other care. Then the letter came. Copyright © 2000 Toby Olson. All rights reserved.