Larry McMurtry's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lonesome Dove" was a voluminous 884-page trek through the Old West, rich with detail and insight. By comparison, "Anything for Billy" is a breakneck sprint through New Mexico outlaw country, a character study of a lost soul, that seems much slighter than its 382 pages.

McMurtry breaks from form by writing in short staccato chapters and taking the stilted voice of Ben Sippy, an author of dime novels who flees a cold wife and society life in Philadelphia, to adventures in the West, the place he has written and read so much about but never seen.After a humiliating failure at train robbery, Sippy falls in with the tempestuous Billy Bone, based on the legend of the young killer William "Billy the Kid" Bonney.

McMurtry's Billy is an insecure child brimming with phobias and a desperate need to live up to his myth.

But Sippy is entranced with the frail 17-year-old thug and the many contradictions that make up his life.

Together they try to dodge land baron Will "Old Whiskey" Isinglass and his hired African killer, the camel-riding Mesty-Woolah. They hang out with the wretched bunch of buffalo hunters and gunfighters in Greasy Corners, where Billy is revered by many and feared by all.

The reader will find little to like about Billy Bone, but still he has the unshakable loyalty of his honorable sidekick, Joe Lovelady, and the sophisticated Sippy and the attentions of the half-breed outlaw queen Katie Garza and Lady Cicely Snow, the manipulative consort of Isinglass.

But why these people can tolerate the company of the miserable, inept, back-shooting Billy for even a minute is never made clear by McMurtry.

After jilting Katie, Billy goes on a murder spree at the behest of Lady Cicely, killing mute children, an innocent Indian boy, a saloon keeper, a banker and a cattleman.

As in "Lonesome Dove," McMurtry shows the hardships of the Old West and goes farther in "Anything for Billy" to debunk the romantics. His gunfighters are a sad lot who "spend their lives in rough barrooms of ugly towns; few of them managed to shoot the right people and even fewer got to die gloriously in a shoot-out with a peer. The majority just got shot down by some bold stranger like the drunk who killed the great Hickock."