This blog post is the third in a series that examines the major themes in Billy Maddox Takes His Shot. Check out the reader’s guide on this website to learn more.
Back in college, usually after my English major friends and I had had a little too much to drink, we liked to wax about the idea that “man is alone in the universe”. It is a topic often explored by literature. When friendship rears its head, as a kind of salve to isolation, that friendship often turns to betrayal or abandonment.
Hamlet is betrayed by Rosencrantz and Guidenstern. Gene shakes the tree and Phineas falls out in John Knowles’ A Separate Peace. The film, Good Will Hunting, shows Chuckie (played by Ben Affleck) opining pretty directly that his friend Will (Matt Damon’s character), will eventually leave their blue-collar friendship because he is a math genius who will eventually be sought after by some huge corporate or government interest.
Writers, it would seem, like to tighten the screws on the idea of friendship, for the purposes of throwing their characters into a world of hurt and demonstrating that someone will always stick it to us in the end. Not fair, maybe, but if does happen. Billy Maddox Takes His Shot touches on this theme but, I’m proud to say, also explores friendship as a phenomenon that can help make one’s life a little easier.
First of all, it’s important to note that at the beginning of the novel, the new Border Patrol agent, Billy Maddox, enters the story without much in the way of friends. During the novel, he alludes to a prior friendship he had with a peer named Rafe that didn’t go so well, and so when he appears to us, we have to wonder if his anger management and irritability issues may have something to do with an inability to keep up positive relationships.
Billy meets two agents during his first days on the job in Santa Cruz County, Arizona – Carl Daniels and Pete Beemer. Carl will play a pretty important role right off the bat, as he is the veteran agent assigned to take Billy around and show him the ropes. He also has to deal with Billy’s issues, which take no time at all in manifesting himself.
Billy’s first breakthrough with others–and maybe with himself, too–comes when the three of them are hanging out at a bar called The Golden Burro. They are sitting and drinking in a booth, a phenomenon virtually unknown to Billy who has traditionally spent his time alone in sullen silence. Pete gets up to grab another round from the bar when out of nowhere, Billy initiates this exchange:
‘”You saved my marriage the other day, Carl.”
Carl looked startled.’
This should be prefaced with a note that Billy’s above-mentioned “issues” had reared their head during Billy’s first day on the job when, on line watch, Billy shoots his Brigadier Beretta in a fit of anger, not at anything in particular, but just because he and Carl have found some empty bags used by Mexican drug mules to traffic drugs across the U.S.-Mexican border. Similar drug mules had stumbled on the Maddox family ranch in Cochise County some years previously, initiating a shootout between those mules and Border Patrol agents, leading to Billy’s brother’s death.
By rights, Carl should have reported his new recruit and quite possibly gotten Billy Maddox suspended or fired for angrily firing his gun. But de doesn’t report Billy. And that’s why Billy thanks him at the Golden Burro.
In response to Carl’s startled response, Billy says:
“I mean that. I know I have a lot to prove to you and everyone else. I want to succeed. But whatever happens, I will always remember that.”
“Thank you, is what I’m trying to say.” Billy closed his eyes and gave a half-bow.
Now anyone who has read even a little bit of Billy Maddox Takes His Shot knows the character is an ornery son-of-a-bitch and that this kind of behavior is very unlike him.
If Billy’s behavior could use a readjustment, it’s also true he hasn’t had a lot of people in his corner over the years. And when he puts Carl in a position of almost needing to report him and then when Carl DOESN’T report him, Billy has to acknowledge the good deed this guy just did for him. Billy’s wife Jessie, it should be added, is already annoyed with her husband for losing two prior jobs and has threatened to leave Billy if he fails once more.
So Billy is finally able to express something positive here, which ends up helping him in the long term.
But no conversation about friendship in Billy Maddox Takes His Shot can simply end on this note. Because Carl has his own story, a story that may have prompted him to cover for Billy as much as any overture toward friendship or even simple tolerance. That story eventually emerges, but so does the steady role of the other line agent, Pete Beemer who, at the outset of the story, stands somewhat in Carl’s shadow.
Friendship is a coin with two sides that requires time, effort, thoughtfulness and trust. Like any other relationship, it can have a poor ending–betrayal or rejection. I’ve had friendships that ended innocently: a friend moved away, or I moved away. Friends grew in different directions or moved on to new social circles. These things happen.
But the other side of the coin, the positive side, the time one spends with others can lead to good times, lasting memories and the belief that whatever problems one may face, they somehow can impact us less when we know someone is in our corner. Billy certainly is a bit of a head case. The very scene that opens Billy Maddox Takes His Shot shows a young man with racing thoughts, who doesn’t seem to have someone to speak to about them.
That changes throughout the course of the novel. One could argue that it is in finding friendship with his Border Patrol buddies that real change can start to happen for Billy. His friendship with Carl Daniels, in particular, gets complex especially when he learns something about his supervisor that Carl intended to keep secret.
If literature (and to some extent, this novel) loves to examine the darker side of friendships gone wrong, it also must examine its deeply healing power.
What is your favorite book, story or film that celebrates the value of friendship? Please comment below.