There’s much about the Old West and the Western novel that should stay dead and gone: the gun-slinging violence, the racism and sexism (all so predictable and stereotyped when “novelized”), the cussing and carousing--all the qualities that made the West so wild.
But the West (old and new), as everyone knows, is a big place and its telling, remembering and imagining take many forms--in fiction and in fact. Moreover, it seems as if the Western novel may have recovered from its reported demise, dusted itself off and saddled up once again.
More than any other contemporary novelist, Larry McMurtry has been hard at work revitalizing the Western. Part of the interest and the urgency of his own artistic westering, his performance as his own (and our own) hero of the West as literary vision, is built into his novels. Even reluctant readers soon realize that these novels, these Westerns that he keeps turning out, deal with matters of some deep personal import. None of his tellings are trivia--as is always the case with true “entertainments.” McMurtry established that early on with his first novels, “Horseman, Pass By” and “The Last Picture Show.”
Later, his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lonesome Dove” revisited that epic narrative of the turn-of-the-century West, the trail drive. “Lonesome Dove,” defying classification, remains, paradox of paradoxes, a modern trail-drive novel. In “Texasville,” McMurtry took a years-later look at some of his earlier characters swaggering into middle age and the throes of modern living and world-crisis economics. Usually McMurtry’s West as word is the West as Texas. But Hollywood and Nevada--and points in between--also play a part in his staking out the larger landscape and idea called “the West.”
Now, in “Anything for Billy,” comes the inevitable--McMurtry’s attempts to account for Billy the Kid, the life and the legend of one of the West’s most storied outlaws. It’s a great, good book with everything in it to make readers think again about the real and the imagined West and the rendering of them in words.
Not surprisingly, the narrator of the story as we hear it, one Ben Sippy--a dime novelist and would-be train robber on the lam (with his mule, Rosy) from his boring wife, Dora, his nine daughters, and his monotonous Philadelphia life--is much more intriguing than William H. Bonney ever was. Here Bonney is cleverly called, for McMurtry’s inventive and parodic purposes, Billy Bone.
Sippy--with his constant scribbling and his silly-titled “dimers"--is in many ways McMurtry’s counterpart: the Western writer in thrall to character and landscape, history and story. In the New Mexico Territory, Sippy falls in with Billy and his loyal cowboy sidekick, Joe Lovelady (a Texas charmer if ever there was one), and rides with them up and down the territory and across the Rio Grande into Mexico in a monthlong traipse that sees Billy ruthlessly murder nine (usually) innocent people. It’s all in a month’s work for poor Billy, who seems all the more frightening because of his own fears and his inability to shoot straight (a failing which demands that he use a .10-gauge goose gun rather than the Colt “Peacemaker” revolver associated with Western heroes). Most demythologizing of all is Billy’s downright dumbness.
Sippy, however, is ready to do just about anything for Billy. He follows him when he says ride. He gives him his mule when villainous old Whiskey Isinglass and his band of wild Texans have Billy and his gunslinging cronies cornered at Skunkwater Flats. He shares Billy’s craving for sexual coupling with the macabre, crazed seductress Cecily Snow. He serves him, advises him, even writes about him, helping elevate him into legend by giving him the name Billy the Kid. And this is the nagging craw-sticker in the novel.
Sippy’s sappiness stops short at the crucial time. His devotion to Billy is not as unqualified as that of Katie Garza, the half-breed bandit queen (one of Isinglass’s many strange and exotic children) for her chapito Billy.
Like Katie, Joe Lovelady gives everything for Billy. What Joe and Katie give and what Ben Sippy withholds is what allows McMurtry to pose the haunting question of the novel and of Billy Bone’s misspent life--a question as much for the new West as for the old: When is a hero merely a celebrity?
Call it a Western against itself, an anti-Western, a gothic Western, an adult Western. Call it a tall tale that outdoes any previous telling about Billy the bandito boy of old New Mexico. Call it a parody of great purpose. Call it anything you like. But those who ride/read along with McMurtry, Billy, Sippy and the rest, those who like to dislike or dislike to like the West--what it was, is, might have been, or still might be--will say after this book, for sure, “Anything for Larry.” Anything at all.
“Billy gave me a chip-toothed grin. I would have guessed him to be no more than seventeen at the time and short for his age at that. In fact, he was almost a runt, and ugly as Sunday. His dirty black coat was about three sizes too big for him.
“He glanced at Rosy, the mule. She didn’t like heights, or clouds either, and was in a foul mood.
“ ‘An Apache could take that mule and ride her fifty miles,’ he pointed out. ‘It’s lucky for you I’m not an Apache.’
“ ‘If you were I’d offer you the mule and hope for the best,’ I said.
“He stuck one of the pistols into an old holster he wore and shoved the other one into the pocket of his black coat.
“ ‘Joe Lovelady’s around here somewhere,’ he said. ‘It would be just like him to show up with my horse.’
“ ‘I’m Ben Sippy,’ I said, thinking it was about time we got introduced. I stood up and offered a handshake.
“Billy didn’t shake my hand, but he gave me another grin. He had buck teeth, and both of them were chipped.
“ ‘Howdy, Mr. Sippy, are you from Mississippi?’ he said, and burst out laughing. In those days Billy was always getting tickled at his own remarks. When he laughed at one of his own jokes you couldn’t help liking him--he was just a winning kid.
“Though now, when I think of Billy Bone giggling at one of his own little sallies, I soon grow blind with tears--sentimental, I guess. But there was a time when I would have done anything for Billy.”
--Larry McMurtry, from the opening of “Anything for Billy”