"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Anything For Billy by Larry McMurtry (Simon & Schuster, 1988)


.
Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons...
.

 
Anything for Billy is in many ways the exact opposite of John Vernon’s Billy the Kid novel, Lucky Billy. Professor Vernon’s book gained in credibility by being authentic and sticking scrupulously to the known facts about the life of William Bonney. Larry McMurtry deliberately invents freely.
.
All the characters are fictional – even Billy himself, who is named Billy Bone. There is a big rancher, Isinglass, who may be intended as the Chisum of the story but there is nothing Chisumish about him. The Garrett figure is Tully Roebuck but he bears no resemblance to Pat Garrett. Billy is killed by a jilted girlfriend, Katie Garza, half-Mexican daughter of Isinglass and future Mexican revolutionary.
.
The tale is lyrical and dreamlike in a free-association way. It’s like the Billy tale told by someone on peyote.
.
The story is narrated by Ben Sippy, of Philadelphia, dime novelist. This is an apt choice for narrator. There is a long tradition of the dime novelist accompanying Billy. Look at the crazed, idolatrous writer in The Left-Handed Gun or the innocent, slightly bewildered Bob Dylan in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. The novel is based on an amusing conceit: what if all the Utleys and Vernons and historians and eye-witnesses were wrong and it was the dime novelists who were right all along?
.
The characters are richly epic, almost Dickensian. There is runty Hill Coe, the greatest lawman-gunfighter after Hickok; Des Montaignes, the French ex-mountain man, saloon owner of the China Pond in Greasy Corners, and his clairvoyant old wife La Tulipe with her mule Bonaparte; Mesty-Woolah, the seven-foot Sudanese warrior who kills for Isinglass, and Lady Cecily Snow, the murderous English aristocrat who elopes with Billy. You get the idea.
.
The novel is fun, it’s light, it’s quite lyrical in parts and the story is told in a straightforward narrative with no trendy dodging about in time. Violence appears as suddenly on the page as it must have happened in reality and is occasionally treated as an act of banality and occasionally inconsequence. Characters, however rich, are despatched as ruthlessly by the author as by the assassin.
.
The book is full of humor and memorable characters. Billy himself is a lousy shot, adolescent, unthinkingly murderous, short-sighted and ill.
.
A very few real people are referred to briefly – the Earps and Hickok – and one real person, Doc Holliday, makes a short appearance but he has no lines. Perhaps by introducing as the only authentic personage in the story a famous figure of the West for whom there is no evidence at all that he met Billy, McMurtry is making a mocking point.
.
I love much of McMurtry’s work, as most Western addicts do, but I must say that while I quite enjoyed this read in a light way, I wouldn’t class it as a must-read or one of his greatest efforts. It certainly adds nothing whatever to our understanding of William Bonney but then it is clear from page one that that was not his aim. Actually, even before page 1: on an early title page of the book you read "Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental." So be warned!
.


 

No comments:

Post a Comment