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Fiction reviews


Larry McMurtry - Anything for Billy; Peter Matthiessen - On the River Styx

18 January 1989

Anything for Billy
Larry McMurty

On the River Styx
Peter Matthiessen
Collins Harvill

Published in The Australian

Larry McMurtry's Anything for Billy is a masterpiece. The man who wrote the novels Terms of Endearment, Lonesome Dove and The Last Picture Show has shown, in this deceptively simple story of Billy the Kid and the Old West, that his talent is going from strength to strength.

It is hard to do justice to this novel in a review, because of its remarkable characters, its impeccable plotting, its pervasive, melancholic atmosphere, its philosophical underpinnings, and the sheer volume of its historical information: there's just so much of it.

McMurtry's narrator is Ben Sippy, a famous writer of blood and thunder "dime novels", who leaves his comfortable home in Philadelphia, heads West, and falls in with Billy Bone (whom he posthumously styles "the Kid") - a 17-year-old psychopath and manic depressive, both shallow and erratic, whom he likes for his "lostness". The vapid, alienated Billy is a screen upon whom the story's other characters project their fancies and dreams, and a catalyst whose cold-blooded murders move it forward in the most startling ways.

Billy has no idea what he is doing on the Earth, and bears a glowering, generalised resentment for its inhabitants. So he drifts across the Rio Grande into Mexico and back again, shooting people on the slightest pretext - a sudden movement, a misconstrued remark - thus garnering a reputation as the meanest, lowest killer the West has seen. The only thing he seems to enjoy in life is the terror he inspires.

Larry McMurtry's story falls between myth and realism, epic and simple tale - dime novel and literature - with a felicity few other writers could manage. (You can never quite decide, for instance, whether its extraordinary cast are archetypes or stock characters.) The story is awash with blood. The end of a human life is rarely given more than half a moment's thought. When the English aristocrat Lady Cecily Snow reproves the rancher Isinglass, over dinner, for killing every Comanche man and woman within hundreds of miles to accommodate his cattle, he replies:

"I guess I did kill a lot of good Comanches. I kilt some decent Kiowa too, and all to make room for a lot of sorry white people who can't find their way from one water hole to the next. I suppose it was a poor job."

"That's a rather thin apology," Cecily said. "You eliminated an entire people - though I suppose you had help."

"Not much help," Isinglass said. He was mopping up the drippings of his beef with a hunk of bread. Besides the beefsteak he had consumed a huge bowl of fiery chili. "Let's have the recital," he said. This is about the time my indigestion hits."

Sippy is respected by many of the hardened killers he meets, because his famous books about romanticised hardened killers precede him wherever he goes. (It reminded me of Jimmy Cagney's adoption by the Underworld in the thirties.) The romance which outpaces all others, however, is that of Billy Bone. Sippy alone knows that his friend Billy is little more than a cowardly killer of children and miscreants, who can't shoot straight, and who falls to pieces in the company of women - even his lover, the outlaw leader Katie Garza. But the myth grows, eventually dwarfing Billy himself, and appalling Sippy, whose eye-witness accounts - both before and after Billy's death - fall on deaf ears.

A beautiful, sad and totally engaging novel which - as a simple fable or an immensely complex dissertation on history and fiction, life and death - will appeal to a wide range of readers.

PETER MATTHIESSEN IS a descriptive writer par excellence - a craftsman whose sentences have that textbook perfection rarely thesedays seen outside the United States, and seldom enough in it.

His stories in On the River Styx tend to be grim and elemental: death is mostly either recent or imminent. His characters work out their relations with each other in its shadow. The characters are - like the author himself, who is among other things a naturalist - close to the grit and blood and pain and decay of the natural world.

The Fifth Day deals with two men who have been employed to float around a bay in a dinghy, waiting for a drowned man's body to surface. (As bodies apparently do after five days.) They get increasingly on each other's nerves, and resolve to punch out their differences when they return to shore. On getting back, however, they discover that some other men have recovered the body, which lies on the shore. The hideous sight of it prompts them to bury their differences and share a cigarette. This is the nearest thing to a romantic ending, or even a symmetrical one, that Matthiesson allows himself.

In Travellin Man a black prison escaper is stalked through a deserted river island by a white hunter. The black must rely on his wits to survive, whereas the white has not only wit but food and a gun. There are no concessions to story "balance" or romantic detail in this most uneven struggle, and the ending comes with all the brutal finality of that in Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. The chase itself is described in almost unnerving detail, and - like most of Matthiessen's stories - has more inexorability than excitement.

Perhaps it is this inexorability which I find "difficult" in his writing. Whilst acknowledging that he is a superb writer - a true neck-scratching realist - I have also to confess that I don't much enjoy reading him.

It is not merely Peter Matthiessen's style which is spare: his stories are devoid of both humour and sexuality - elements which apparently interest him less than the average person. You admire his stoicism, his naturalistic purity, his crisp and perfect sentences - but have to admit that you wouldn't mind a break, at times, from the relentless intensity of it all.

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