Anything for Billy

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1901

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 ...

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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.

Billy’s entire career, brief as it is, has this accidental quality. He enjoys killing, but there is nothing heroic or even meaningful about his actions, and in fact he seems to be something of a coward. In one episode, soon after his first shooting, he stands by while Isinglass’ half-Apache son Bloody Feathers rides into a town and, in a dispute over an Apache girl, picks up an Italian gunslinger by one ear, holding him in the air. Billy simply watches. Later, blamed by the other gunman, he seems embarrassed and says only that he has no obligation to intervene when somebody else gets in trouble.

Anything for Billy has a very modern quality in its juxtaposition of the comic and the bloodily tragic. Ben escapes with his life after the range war because he is recognized as a dime novelist by one of Isinglass’ men who has read his writings. There is a long episode in which Billy is forgotten while Ben has an affair with Lady Cecily Snow, a guest of Isinglass’ who intends to kill her host and in the meantime amuses herself with Ben and her artistic studies of botanical specimens. At the end of this interlude, however, the reader finds that Joe has been followed by Mesty-Woolah in an epic chase:The cowboy and the African had raced one another halfway across the West—up the Pecos, across the Jicarilla country, around the great Shiprock butte, north of the Navaho canyon, south from the desert of monuments: days of hiding, nights of racing, until the cowhorse at last drew up lame and the camel was shot with Joe Lovelady’s last bullet as the race finally ended, somewhere on the Mogollon Rim.

The two men return together, exhausted, to Isinglass’ home ranch, where Mesty-Woolah decapitates the cowboy with one slash of his sword. Joe, the most heroic character in the novel, is dispatched in two lines, and Billy the Kid has no part in any of this action.

Virtually all the action, in one way or another, debunks the myth of Billy the Kid as a brave man and a gunfighter who killed many men. Billy is ruthless, temperamental, and indifferent to the lives of others, but in McMurtry’s portrayal he is also foolish and the recipient of the credit or blame for killings in which he had no part. His involvement with Lady Cecily is an example. Having become bored with Ben, Lady Cecily seduces Billy the Kid. Katie may be his great love, but Cecily is nearer. As it turns out, Lady Cecily has an ulterior motive. She uses Billy as a screen in her continuing feud with Isinglass; she shoots Mesty-Woolah with her rifle while in Billy’s company, knowing that the famous gunslinger will be blamed. She also convinces Billy that he must kill Isinglass’ other children, her half-brothers. As she has explained to Ben, Isinglass robbed her father and took her mother as his lover.

McMurtry has fun with a number of different stories in Anything for Billy. The episodes with Lady Cecily parody romantic fiction about titled English women; she is as unromantic as she can be, propositioning Ben crudely and commenting disparagingly on his sexual performance. At another point, Ben is involved in a parody of The Thousand and One Nights; Isinglass plans to hang him, but promises not to if Ben can act like Scheherazade and tell him a tale every night that will keep him awake until he digests his dinner. This leads to a parody of the murder mystery, since Ben is eventually told that Isinglass’ indigestion results from ground glass which Lady Cecily and his servants, all of whom hate him, introduce into his food at dinner.

The chief object of McMurtry’s parody is the Western novel, in which men such as Billy the Kid have been made heroes in defiance of the facts. Several of Billy’s victims are helpless boys killed without warning. Others are equally defenseless. He is finally arrested in Lincoln, New Mexico, after shooting an unarmed banker and a cattleman. Myths are made of this; Ben observes that some people believe that the banker and cattleman were rivals of Isinglass and that Billy had killed them for the old man, but like so much about Billy and his life, this rumor is pure fantasy.

The most persistent myths McMurtry attacks, through Ben, are those having to do with the death of Billy the Kid. As Ben observes, everyone who knew Billy tries to claim credit for having killed him. McMurtry arranges matters so that this seems possible. Hurt while Katie stages a jailbreak and takes him to Mexico, Billy partially recovers and decides to leave Katie to return across the border for a rendezvous with Lady Cecily. Accompanied by Ben, he meets her at Greasy Corners, where he kills one of the old buffalo hunters, thereby emptying the town of its usual denizens. Everyone with a grudge against Billy arrives at once: Isinglass and his new hired gun, Long Dog Hawkins; Bloody Feathers; and the sheriff from whom Billy had escaped in Lincoln, Tully Roebuck. Katie, however, arrives from Mexico and shoots her lover before any of the others can get to him. Annoyed by Long Dog’s complaints that he had not been given the first shot, Katie shoots him, too.

In the aftermath, Ben reviews all the myths and speculations about Billy’s death, pointing out that even Billy had asked Katie to give credit for his shooting to Tully, apparently on the theory that it would look bad if history recorded that he had been killed by a woman. Tully, he tells her, has a political career to think of. Thus, according to Ben, history has given Katie credit for a later career as a Mexican revolutionary but has denied the fact of her killing her lover. The unwritten jest is that Pat Garrett, credited by myth and many historians with shooting Billy, is never mentioned.

McMurtry’s best joke is that in debunking the myths about Billy the Kid he has created his own myths: Will Isinglass and Mesty-Woolah are larger than life, as is Katie Garza; Joe Lovelady is a genuine if previously unsung hero; and Lady Cecily Snow, with her unabashed sexuality and her cool hatred for Isinglass, is a legend in her own right. In creating these characters, McMurtry pays tribute to the power of the myth. A worn-out myth can be discarded, but another must take its place.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 47

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, August 1, 1988, p. 1088.

Library Journal. CXIII, October 15, 1988, p. 104.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 30, 1988, p. 1.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, October 16, 1988, p. 3.

Newsweek. CXII, September 26, 1988, p. 76.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, August 19, 1988, p. 59.

Time. CXXXII, October 24, 1988, p. 92.

The Wall Street Journal. CCXI, October 6, 1988, p. A16.

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