Anything for Billy
Larry McMurtry continues to shift from the Old West to modern-day Texas and back again for the subjects of his novels. His great success in Lonesome Dove (1985), a novel of frontier days, was followed by the comic but less successful novel of Texas in the 1980’s, Texasville (1987). In Anything for Billy he returns to the frontier days of the Wild West and the story of one of its most famous characters, Billy the Kid, but his approach is humorous. Lonesome Dove was an epic novel with a tragic ending, an impressive attempt to re-create the early days of the frontier West on a grand scale. Anything for Billy takes the materials of myth and treats them as comic, up to and including the inevitable death of its main character. It is on a much smaller scale than Lonesome Dove and takes itself and its subject much less seriously.
The voice for McMurtry’s telling of Billy the Kid’s story is that of Ben Sippy, a wealthy Philadelphian who read dime novels by the hundreds, became tired of waiting for new ones to be published, and began writing his own, with great success. Married and the father of nine girls, Ben leaves his indifferent wife and daughters when the wife has a trash collector haul away his huge trove of dime novels. He decides to see the West for himself, boards a ship for Galveston, and eventually, sheltering himself from a sandstorm in Apache country, runs into Billy Bone. The younger man has already built a reputation as a gunfighter, although it develops that he has never shot anyone and has only once killed a man, and then with a knife in an accident. Ben is accepted by Billy and his friend, Joe Lovelady, and the three of them begin the travels that set the plot in motion.
Anything for Billy is as full of violent incidents as any dime novel, but there is nothing heroic about any of them. One of the more subtle jokes of the novel is the fact that most of the violence is done by other men and women, even though Billy is blamed for some of the shooting. More than half the novel goes by, in fact, before Billy kills anyone.
The first two sections are a leisurely exposition of the situation. Brief chapters about Ben’s meeting with Billy and Joe alternate with equally brief chapters explaining Ben’s life as a reader and writer and his adventures on the way to his accidental meeting with Billy. Once the three men join, McMurtry teases the reader with descriptions of the life of gunmen and out-of-work buffalo hunters who gather together in a small West Texas hamlet called Greasy Corners and hang out in the China Pond saloon waiting for something to happen.
A great many things do happen. There are shootings. Katie Garza, daughter of the rich rancher Will Isinglass, rides into town with her Mexican bandits, challenges a famous marshal and marksman to a shooting contest and beats him, thereby destroying him, and then takes up with Billy. There are more shootings. Isinglass, known as Old Whiskey for his habit of taking a jar of whiskey with him when he goes out for a day’s ride, rides into town with his entourage. A berserk cowboy challenges them and is disemboweled by Mesty-Woolah, an African in Isinglass’ employ. Katie takes Billy across the river into Mexico, and Ben goes along, the only observer of the early days of their romance. In McMurtry’s telling, it is all very lighthearted.
Billy himself is passive through all this activity, including his affair with Katie, which he seems not really to believe. A thin, undistinguished young man, he suffers from debilitating headaches and uncertainty about himself. He is stupid but somehow winning, alternating between foolish self-confidence and sudden doubts. It is, in Ben’s telling, a kind of boyish innocence that gives him a certain charm. Despite the pleasures of Katie’s attentions, he grows bored with the easy life and rides off with Ben and Joe, supposedly to track down Texans who are killing innocent men.
On the trail, they meet two riders, and for no reason Billy shoots at them, accidentally hitting and killing one of them, but missing the other with four shots at close range. Billy is no marksman. He has killed an innocent horse-trader, Joe’s friend; despite the “look of cold satisfaction on his face,” Billy has made a mistake. “Something had gone wrong. Luck had brought him what seemed to be a legitimate chance to become the killer everyone fancied him to be. But there was a dark side to the luck. He had killed his friend’s friend, and an innocent man at that.” He has also precipitated a range war that will end with Joe’s death.
(The entire section is 1901 words.)