Books: The Terms Of Fatal Endearment

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by Larry McMurtry

Simon & Schuster; 382 pages; $18.95

By all accounts, Billy the Kid was nothing more than Charles Manson in cowboy boots. Still, history has never fared well against legend, which not only alters facts but also stages the conversions in a nostalgic half-light. Larry McMurtry has become a master of this illusion, partly because he continues to sharpen his gifts for narrative and character, but mainly because his themes belong to our cultural gene pool. Lonesome Dove (1985), a long, winding fable packed with salty old coots and ferocious Indians, camped on the best-seller lists for months. Even when McMurtry was writing about the small- town Texas of his 1950s adolescence (The Last Picture Show) or the air- conditioned Houston of the 1960s and '70s (Terms of Endearment), one felt the presence of the Old American West, the place of great escape and abiding solitude.

In Anything for Billy, McMurtry's terms of endearment are intentionally made more difficult to accept. His Billy Bone is an impetuous, cold-blooded killer of children and defenseless old men. Yet he is surrounded by a cadre of congenial friends and lovers who attempt to protect him, especially from himself. McMurtry takes pains to make the Kid physically as well as morally repugnant. He is a puny, unkempt, chip-toothed teenager who suffers from headaches and fainting spells. He is probably nearsighted, which explains his poor marksmanship.

What then is the attraction?

The answer is wistfully framed by one of McMurtry's more appealing creations. Benjamin J. Sippy is a type once familiar in the life and literature of young America. He is a remittance man, a gentleman traveler with an eye for adventure and a hand on his letter of credit. As the novel's narrator, Ben tells how he transformed himself from an armchair wrangler in Philadelphia into a sidekick of the frontier's most feared gunfighter. Step 1 was to read all the dime westerns he could get his hands on. Step 2 was to write successful dimers himself (Sandycraw, Man of Grit). Step 3 included leaving his wife and nine daughters to become a train robber. It was a short career. One look at this middle-aged dude waving a pistol from the top of a mule, and the engineer just waved back.

Sippy first crosses trails with Billy the Kid in Apache country. The boy outlaw is accompanied by Joe Lovelady, as noble and loyal a cowboy as can be found in any ballad. The danger that the failed train robber will be summarily shot for just being in Billy's way is diminished by the early recognition that, as the narrator, Sippy must survive. McMurtry breaks his story into short takes, a form suited to the episodic action and the presentation of characters who are larger than life but just the right size for this sort of literature. Katie Garza can outshoot Annie Oakley. Will Isinglass owns a spread as vast as the mind can imagine. Mesty-Woolah is a 7-ft. African who swings a swift sword from the back of a camel. The lusty Lady Snow speaks the King's English even when propositioning every hand in the bunkhouse.

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