ANYTHING FOR BILLY by Larry McMurtry, New York: Simon & Schuster, 382 pp. $18.95
WHY is it our imagination is seized by people who have no imagination?
William Bonney (1859-81), popularly known as Billy the Kid, was a cattle thief who managed to kill 21 people before being killed himself at age 22. Billy has been the subject of dime-store novels, serious literary works, and even a ballet by Aaron Copland, the American composer.
But Billy may well have found his ablest expositor in Larry McMurtry, who, far from lengthening a tale tall or glamorizing an unattractive character, has coolly taken his measure. Billy Bone, as he's called in this novel, is a short, ugly, dirty, stupid young man who can barely hit a barn door from 30 yards. Billy's faithful companion, cowboy Joe Lovelady, has all the looks, charm, and gallantry (not to mention survival skills, like being able to find his way in unmapped terrain), while Billy's paramour, Katie Garza, head of her own Mexican band of banditos, has all the flash, daring, and marksmanship skills.
The Billy depicted in these pages is certainly not Robin Hood. There's nothing to admire about him. Larry McMurtry, a writer who has looked at his native West with a rueful mixture of love and skepticism in novels like ``Lonesome Dove,'' ``Leaving Cheyenne,'' ``Texasville,'' and ``The Last Picture Show,'' has wisely given the task of telling Billy's story to another, more credulous writer. This is Benjamin Sippy, a middle-aged author of dime novels, who, craving a taste of the real thing, leaves his wife and nine daughters in Philadelphia to head west. There he meets up with 17-year-old Billy, who has killed only one man so far but has gotten a reputation he feels obliged to keep up.
Sippy narrates the story in dime-novel style: Short, action-packed, melodramatic chapters gallop right along. But his hero, Billy, is far from heroic, and the keynote of these adventures is the wry humor so prevalent in the West: laconic, self-deprecatory, and sometimes just plain unashamedly silly.
Sippy (and McMurtry) is at a loss to explain Billy's appeal. To Lady Cecily Snow, an icy-blooded botanist transplanted from England, Billy is the perfect little brute to dispose of the rich, autocratic rancher she's forced to live with. But what do Billy's true friends see in him? Sippy describes him as a sickly, ``delicate'' lad, who's been weakened rather than toughened by a hard childhood: ``just a little western waif, with such a lonely look stuck on his ugly young face that you'd want to do anything for him. I stuck with him out of sympathy - not admiration. None of us admired his killing; but none of us could stand to desert him either.''
As McMurtry reveals, however, sympathy for Billy is a one-way proposition. Billy's own leading emotion is self-pity: ``Billy tended to do all his thinking when he was miserable, and then all his thinking centered on his own misery. ... Billy Bone didn't spend many hours of his life thinking about his fellow human beings. The notion that they had some sort of right to life probably never entered his head....''
Feelings spent on Billy are feelings squandered: He's very close to what the German poet Rilke called a ``doll'' (Puppe, in German) - an object that wastes human love. It's a short step from doll to idol, and the biblical injunction against idolatry takes on new meaning in the age of matinee idols and instant celebrities, images without content that - like Billy - seem to consume so much of popular emotion. The stuff of legends, these figures are conveniently blank spaces on which people can project their own desires and fantasies.
McMurtry also emphasizes a corresponding aspect of Billy's emptiness: his motivelessness as a killer. Billy kills haphazardly - often, people he scarcely knows. There is something oddly reassuring about the lack of motive. Certainly, it would be more disturbing to have to consider a Billy who killed out of sadism. Or for racial, religious, or political reasons. Or out of cold, calculating criminality.
By presenting a Billy who scarcely knows what he is doing, McMurtry seems to be inviting readers to relax and enjoy the violence without having to worry about what causes it. Yet, the effects of violence are depicted graphically enough to bring in the eternal note of sadness.
But Billy - in legend and as McMurtry portrays him - is more than a blank. He is revealed as a figure who ``acts out'' mechanically repetitive behavior patterns - what Freud called instinctual drives - which, to judge from the sex and violence quotient of film and television, many people never tire of seeing depicted.
Billy's fascination is precisely that he lacks control over his life. ``Billy Bone was just a puppet to his instincts, jerked this way and that by strings whose pull he couldn't predict,'' notes Sippy, completing the link between doll and puppet. (Puppe in German means both.)
Devoid not only of imagination and sympathy for others, but also of any sense of history, Billy paradoxically captures people's imagination, evokes their sympathy, and becomes a part of history. It's a paradox neither McMurtry nor Sippy can completely explain or commend, but in ``Anything for Billy'' the pleasures and dangers of idolatry are presented with a tough-minded sympathy that offers insight in place of adulation.