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Billy Boy: A Novel

Billy Boy: A Novel

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by Bud Shrake

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Not since Larry McMurtry's The Last Picture Show has a novelist captured the poignant contradictions of young manhood in the American West the way Bud Shrake does in Billy Boy. And no novel has ever combined history, spirituality and golf into so potent a triumph of the human spirit.
There are tough times ahead for sixteen-year-old Billy. He's just


Not since Larry McMurtry's The Last Picture Show has a novelist captured the poignant contradictions of young manhood in the American West the way Bud Shrake does in Billy Boy. And no novel has ever combined history, spirituality and golf into so potent a triumph of the human spirit.
There are tough times ahead for sixteen-year-old Billy. He's just come to Fort Worth with his father, Troy, after the death of his mother back in Albuquerque. Troy's drinking and gambling will leave them all but penniless, and he'll soon move on and abandon Billy in this strange town to fend for himself. With only a vague idea of how he's going to live, Billy heads over to Colonial Country Club, where he hopes he can get work as a caddie and where he just might see his hero, Ben Hogan. What he finds there, under the watchful eye of his guardian spirit, teaches him unforgettable lessons about golf, life, love and honor.
In Billy Boy, longtime novelist and screenwriter Bud Shrake takes us back to the early 1950s, in a story thick with the Texas dust. Hardscrabble Billy, tough as he thinks he is and smarter than he knows, makes a place for himself behind the walls of privilege at Colonial. He first draws the approval, then the ire, of the club's most eccentric millionaire member, while his looks and manner draw the attention of the millionaire's beautiful granddaughter -- to the displeasure of her boyfriend, the club champion. Billy survives a fierce initiation and a dreadful scene with his drunken father -- but most important, he comes in contact with two of the greatest figures in the history of golf in Texas, Ben Hogan and John Bredemus, each of whom takes Billy under his wing for different reasons and with different results.
Shrake skillfully weaves these historical figures and his richly drawn characters into the fabric of the town and the tenor of the time. Billy must face down his fears and doubts, and he does so in a climactic confrontation that combines the yearnings of youth with the redemption of the spirit. Billy Boy is an unforgettable novel of coming of age in a time and a place filled with mythic echoes and frontier dreams.

Editorial Reviews

School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Fort Worth, 1951, is the setting for this coming-of-age novel in which Billy learns about life and love through the Zen of golf. Having just lost his mother to cancer, the 16-year-old and his handsome, drunken, irresponsible father leave Albuquerque, NM, and settle in Texas. Within a short period of time, Billy is on his own, his father having first gambled away everything they owned and then gotten killed in an accident. Shrake weaves real personalities into this novel-champion golfer Ben Hogan, deceased golf-course builder John Bredemus (taking the form of an angel), and famed golf instructor Harvey Penick. Billy learns to confront his poverty, his parents' deaths, and his future through the wise intervention of the eccentric angel and fortuitous opportunities. Having landed a job as a caddie at the famed and prestigious Colonial Country Club, the teen has to earn his place in the caddie yard, deal with class-conscious members, a snooty beauty, and the club's junior champion. Through Hogan and Bredemus, Billy learns to apply the skills of a talented golfer to the business of life. This is really a fairy tale with a feel-good ending, but there is enough teenage angst and golf to appeal to reluctant young adult readers.-Carol DeAngelo, Kings Park Library, Burke, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Texan sportswriter Shrake is probably best known as Harvey Penick's co-author (Harvey Penick's Little Red Book and If You Play Golf You're My Friend, 1993), but he's also written eight novels solo (The Borderland, not reviewed, etc.) before this brief coming-of-age tale. Like his close friend, fellow Texan, and occasional co-author Dan Jenkins, Shrake has an affinity for the golf courses of his home state and the heroes who walked their fairways, particularly Ben Hogan, who plays an important role here. The title figure is a 16-year-old boy who, at the story's outset, has come to Fort Worth in the early 1950s with his handsome, raffish widower father, a drinker, gambler, rodeo champion, WWII vet and golfer. But when daddy Troy loses their entire savings in a dice game while drunk, Billy leaves him in a rage. Troy reenlists in the Army with tragic results. In the meantime, Billy has taken a job caddying at Colonial Country Club, where he is buffeted by the winds of wealthy eccentric Dr. Sandpaster, Sandpaster's gorgeous granddaughter Sandra, and the arrogant young club champion Sonny Stonekiller. One night Billy finds a mysterious 7-iron in the grass in a public park and is adopted by its owner, a no-less-mysterious man who claims to be John Bredemus, the legendary designer of Colonial and countless other Texas courses. Shrake spins his tale in a warm, burnished prose that has the glow of fond memory, with charming cameos by such Texas sports and gambling legends as poker whiz Amarillo Slim and even Shrake's own golf mentor Harvey Penick. Although the finale, with a tense golf match between Billy and Sonny, with Billy's future riding on the outcome, is a little predictable, the result isa book of considerable charm. Sentimental but never treacly, sweet but not cloying: a sprightly jeu d'esprit, with some solid golfing advice thrown in for good measure.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The boy awoke to the snuffles of a woman softly sobbing in the bed across the room near the open window. For a moment he thought he was dreaming of his dead mother. Then he heard snoring and saw his father's undershirted back turned toward the woman, who was whimpering, "Where am I? Oh God, what has happened to me?"

She looked at the boy, surprised to see him. He rolled off his foldaway cot already dressed in Levi's and a white cotton polo shirt and white socks. He kept his eyes away from her as he tied the laces of his black tennis shoes and combed his hair with his fingers. The room stunk of whiskey and cigarettes.

"Who are you?" she said. "Where am I?"

"You came here with him," the boy said. "He's my daddy."

"He's too young to have a son your age. Why are you here?"

"This is our room," the boy said.

"I've never done anything like this before."

The boy nodded. He had pretended to be asleep when his father brought her to their hotel room after the saloons closed. A half bottle of bourbon lay on the floor on top of her white cotton dress and her earrings and her white gumsole shoes. The boy figured she was a waitress or a nurse. A cool breeze blew across his father, who slept nearest the window. They heard from down below a street-sweeping machine blasting water into the gutters.

"Please tell me you wasn't laying there watching me all night," the woman said.

"I was asleep."

"You promise?"

"We drove all night and all day and into the night again to get here. I was tired."

"Your daddy wasn't tired."

"He didn't do the driving."

With a snort, the boy's father slapped at a fly on his face, sat up and opened his eyes. He had the look of a cowboy, wide shouldered, lean, blond hair rumpled, firm jaw that needed a shave. He licked his lips and wiped his mouth with the back of a golden hairy wrist. He shook a cigarette out of a pack of Camels on the windowsill. Using the lucky Zippo he had carried through France and Germany during World War Two with his old artillery unit, he lit the cigarette and inhaled. He coughed.

"Billy Boy. Where you going in the middle of the night?" he said.

"The sun'll be up in a few minutes."

"You don't need to clear out because of her. She's leaving."

"You filthy rat, you got me drunk," the woman said.

"Billy Boy, I'm truly sorry about this. I didn't set out last night to bring a woman to the room."

The woman clutched the sheet tighter around her breasts and began weeping again, weakly. "I don't know your name," she said. "What's your damn name?"

"I'm Tyrone, remember? You said I look like Tyrone Power with a bleach job."

"Please, Jesus, I'll never drink again," the woman said. "What is your name, really?"


The woman looked around at the greasy wallpaper with faded roses on it.

"This room is trashy. What hotel is this?"

"The Half Moon," said Troy.

"You told me you kept a suite downtown at the Blackstone," she said.

"I'm liable to say most anything, Marie."

Hearing him speak her name, the woman looked at Troy with interest, seeing anew his opaque blue eyes that could frighten a person, his hair, crushed by the pillow, with yellow curls around his ears and forehead, streams of cigarette smoke coming from his nose and drifting around his lips. She dried her tears on the sheet and reached for Troy's cigarette to share it. She looked at the boy and frowned.

"What are you staring at?" she said.

"I'm leaving."

"You going to try for a bag at Colonial?" asked Troy.

"Yes sir."

"Not much chance for a new boy at a place like that."

"I'll try, though."

"They'll be rough on you," Troy said.

"I expect they will."

"Maybe you'll see Ben Hogan," Troy said.

"Hope so."

"Tell Ben I said 'hidy.'"

"More of your bull," the woman said. "You don't know Ben Hogan. Do you?"

"There was a time I could beat him."

"Sure there was. Two years ago when he was three-quarters dead and lay crippled in the hospital after a bus run head-on into his car," the woman said. "If he give you enough strokes, you might of beat him while he was unconscious in a cast. But now he's back on his feet, nobody can beat him."

"A golf expert, are you, Marie?" Troy said.

"My sister's husband plays every Saturday and Sunday at Rockwood Park on the Jacksboro Highway."

Troy smiled and tickled the woman's ear with a forefinger.

"I need the car today to scout around for business prospects. I'll set up a bank account," said Troy. "We'll have a first-class meal tonight when you come back, Billy Boy. You and me. We'll have two big steaks with French fries and onion rings at the Cattleman's Café. We'll order shrimp cocktails to start. Tomorrow we'll find a place to live. How's that?"

"That sounds great," the boy said.

"Would you please get out of here?" the woman said. "I need to potty."

Billy walked down one flight of stairs and turned into the lobby of the Half Moon Hotel. The head of a steer with an eight-foot spread of horns looked out from the wall through brown glass eyes. An old black man with a mop and a bucket was wetting the white tile floor. He had stacked up three copper spittoons to clean and polish later. The night manager leaned his elbows on the registration desk. A ceiling fan creaked overhead and rustled the sports pages that he was reading in the morning Star-Telegram. Billy noticed a front page headline that said reds drive on kwang ji. The boy knew his father was worried about being called back into the Army and sent to Korea. It was five years since Troy had been discharged as a first lieutenant after serving in hard fighting during World War Two, but all commissioned officers remained in the Reserves indefinitely, and a buddy had written in a letter that the Army was getting desperate for Forward Observers in the artillery in the hills of Korea.

"Where is Colonial Country Club at?" Billy asked the night manager.

The night manager looked up from the box scores and took sight of the boy with an amused appraisal from the tennis shoes up to the tangled hair. The boy could have passed for a younger brother, but he was clearly his father's son, the night manager thought. Narrow hips, a cocky way of walking, a tilt of the head. The same blue-gray eyes. A few hours ago a drunken older version of this kid had slipped the night manager two dollars and patted his shoulder and swaggered up the stairs with Marie, who worked at the beauty shop down the block but drank in saloons up and down North Main Street and Exchange Avenue.

"Now why on earth would you want to know something like that?" the night manager said.

"I need to go there," said Billy.

"Hey, Raymond, you hear this? The kid needs to go to Colonial Country Club."

"Well, knock me down and steal my teeth," the old black man said, slapping the tile with his mop.

The night manager looked at Billy. "For what?"

"To find some work."

"What're you? A hubcap thief?"

Billy's tennis shoes squeaked on the tile as he turned abruptly and started toward the door.

"Hey, boy," the night manager said.

Billy stopped and waited.

"Colonial Country Club is on the other side of the river about ten miles south of here."

"And watch out for the police," said Raymond, sloshing his mop in the bucket. "They don't want boys like you walking through the Colonial neighborhood unless you be pushing a lawn mower."

The boy stepped through the open glass-and-wood door of the Half Moon Hotel and onto the sidewalk. The air smelled rich with the odor of cow manure from the huge stockyards nearby. The street-sweeping machine had left the curbs wet and the scent more pungent. There was a hint of hay and hide in the smell, and bits of straw floated among the bugs that darted around the streetlights. The boy noted that the block housed two more walk-up hotels like the Half Moon and three saloons with the streetlights reflected in their windows. On the other side of North Main Street he saw the New Isis Theater, a movie house. Billy loved movies, but he had been so tired after driving all the way from Albuquerque that he hadn't noticed the theater last night.

Halfway along the block Billy was relieved to find their black and yellow Chevy Bel Air, parked a little too close to the curb, but unharmed. The two-year-old Chevy was their most important possession. Truth be, Billy thought, the Chevy was their only possession other than the clothes on their backs and in their suitcases and the bank draft in his daddy's wallet. The night his daddy had arrived at their adobe house in Albuquerque two years ago in this almost new black and yellow Chevy, Troy had been laughing, looking wild and tough, flashing his big smile, staggering, drinking from a bottle of Wild Turkey. He said he won the engine and the frame of the car playing golf at Santa Fe Country Club, and the body and the tires shooting dice in the back room at El Nito in Tesuque.

Billy remembered that his mother had smiled without humor at the new Chevy and at Troy as he stumbled into the rose and lilac bushes and thumped against the wall. Hours later as Billy sat listening in his bed, smelling the scent of pinion from the log that smoldered in the fireplace, he thought he heard a slap and he seemed to hear his mother crying. Many nights while growing up, Billy had lain in bed or crouched at the door of his room listening to his parents arguing and fighting. He was afraid for his mother's beautiful frail body, angry at his daddy's rough drunken ways, ashamed of himself for not having the strength to rush into their room and make them stop. He had tried several times. At age eleven he had heard her crying and ran into the kitchen and saw blood on his mother's lips. Billy lost himself to rage. He swung a croquet mallet hard at his daddy's head, hoping to crush his skull, to kill him, to bring peace to their home. Troy had dodged the blow and knocked the boy down with an open hand, and Billy's mother ordered him back to bed. He sat in a wooden chair at his window and looked at the Sandia Mountain until the sun appeared over it, and he yearned to be gone from this house, but he was afraid to leave his mother, afraid of what Troy might do to her. Billy kept in his chair at the window until Sandia Mountain was red with light above its crest and he heard soft laughter from his parents' bedroom as they made love.

But the night Troy brought the black and yellow Chevy home, she yelled at her husband and wept loudly, and she slapped him, as she often did. And then their voices became low, solemn, restrained, broken by the dry cough his mother had developed, and about sunrise, Billy fell asleep in his chair looking out at Sandia Mountain. That was when they learned she had cancer. They buried her two weeks ago in Albuquerque and sold their house day before yesterday.

Outside the Half Moon Hotel, a slash of pink began spreading across the eastern sky, and the street lights flipped to dark as Billy was scraping away grasshoppers that had mashed against the Chevy windshield. He realized he must hurry. Golfers would be on the first tee in an hour, and he was ten miles from Colonial and on foot. It was amazing to think the golf course could be ten miles away but still inside the city. He began to understand what an enormous city Fort Worth was, and that everything from now on would be new and strange and dangerous.

Copyright © 2001 by Bud Shrake

Chapter Eleven

Billy spent four hours in the caddie yard the next morning without getting a bag. Elvis Spaatz told Chili McWillie that Dr. Sandpaster had spread the word that Billy was a jinx. Dr. Sandpaster went onto the course later than his usual hour, using a caddie named Fonda, a slender white boy who could walk all day, summer or winter, toting a sixty-pound bag and never saying a word. Some of the caddies said Fonda was too dumb to talk, but others said he was too smart to talk.

As the number-one caddie, Chili McWillie could have any bag he wanted, but he preferred to hang out in the yard and keep order. Chili took half a dozen golf balls out of a paper sack and organized a game of chipping toward a hole in the ground. A hole in one was worth a nickel from each of the other players. Billy chipped it in on his first three shots with the lucky 7-iron and was staying comfortably ahead.

"You banging old Ira's granddaughter?" Chili asked.

"Why? Is she the kind that bangs everybody?"

"Naw, she don't bang nobody that I know. Sonny Stone-killer wants people to think he does it with her, but I don't believe him. That girl thinks she is too good for banging. I'd like to be the one that teaches her different. Hey!"

Chili chipped one into the hole and collected nickels.

"Then why would you ask if I'm banging her? Don't seem very likely, does it?"

"Don't seem likely at all, new boy," Chili said. "But you got old Ira furious at you, and Sonny Stonekiller told his football player pals he'd like to see you get the snot kicked out of you. So I figured the girl is behind it."

"She won't speak to me."

"That's a come on," Chili said. "In my neighborhood, when a girl won't speak to you she is begging for a banging. I hear you challenged Sonny Stonekiller to a fistfight and he backed down."

"Yeah," said Billy.

"You a good boy," Chili said. "I like you. You got grit."

"Why can't I get a bag?" said Billy.

Billy chipped another ball into the hole.

"Hey, you'd be losing money bagging. You make more chipping with that old 7-iron you found."

"Good Lord God Awmighty!"

The caddies looked around from their games and sat up from their naps.

Ben Hogan stood at the entrance of the caddie yard, studying them with those eyes that led other players to call him the Hawk. He wore a flat white cap, a white cotton golf shirt, a black leather belt, gray pleated gabardine slacks and gleaming black shoes that were spit shined. Sunlight fell upon him and glowed from him in the imaginations of the stunned caddies.

Elvis Spaatz rushed up to Hogan's side.

"Mr. Hogan, I'm sorry your man got food poisoning. Those deviled eggs should have been thrown away. I will carry your bag myself," Elvis said.

"No," Hogan said.

"Oh, I consider it a real honor, sir, something I can tell my children about someday."

"No," Hogan said. He looked at Billy. "Hey, kid. You with the golf club. Come here."

Billy knew from photographs that Hogan was a handsome man, who resembled a shorter, fiercer Gary Cooper, but the closer the boy approached the more Billy realized he and Hogan were the same height and build.

Hogan took the cigarette out of his mouth and mashed it under his right shoe.

"Let me see that club," Hogan said.

Billy handed him the club. Hogan wrapped his fingers around the leather grip, waggled the club a few times, held it in front of him at a forty-five-degree angle as if checking the straightness of the shaft. Hogan looked at the clubhead, read the name Bobby Jones and ran his fingers along the grooves.

"I've seen this club before," Hogan said.

Billy became aware that his mouth was hanging slack, that he must look like an idiot, but he was lost in the thrill of standing in the presence of the greatest golfer in the world, a true hero. A feeling of strength radiated from the champion like electric current. It struck Billy that he was feeling the power of Hogan's will.

"Where did you get this 7-iron?" Hogan asked.

"I found it in the weeds beside the road in the park," said Billy.


"Yesterday afternoon."

Hogan waggled the club again.

"What's your name?" Hogan asked.

"His name is Billy, sir. Hardy Loudermilk sent him to us," Elvis said.

Hogan held the Bobby Jones 7-iron under his right arm as he lit another cigarette. He looked at Billy.

"Are you the boy who told Ira Sandpaster he was standing too close to his ball?"

"Billy is awful raw, Mr. Hogan. He wouldn't do that again," said Elvis.

"So you're the boy who Ira Sandpaster says is the jinx who made him shank it four times?"

"Yes sir," Billy said.

A light came into Hogan's eyes. He smiled like Gary Cooper. The smile was fascinating at the core of force that surrounded him. He dragged on his cigarette, considering, and then blew a stream of smoke and laughed out loud.

Hogan laughed until he started coughing.

"I wish I had seen that," Hogan said.

"It was pretty ugly, sir," said Billy.

"Yeah. That's what I mean."

Hogan inspected the 7-iron once more and then gave it back to Billy.

"I'm getting ready to play the back nine. You want to carry my bag?" Hogan said.

"Yes sir!" said Billy.

"I'll meet you on the tenth tee in five minutes. Be sure to bring that 7-iron with you," Hogan said.

Copyright © 2001 by Bud Shrake

Meet the Author

Bud Shrake is the coauthor of Harvey Penick's Little Red Book and the author of many novels and screenplays. He lives in Austin, Texas.

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