Billy Bob Thornton with Kinky Friedman: The Billy Bob Tapes 

Billy Bob Thornton with Kinky Friedman: The Billy Bob Tapes 

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The Billy Bob Tapes

Author: Billy Bob Thornton with Kinky Friedman
Publisher: William Morrow

Most people have probably had the experience of listening to some colorful motormouth at a party and thinking, “If we could just turn on the tape recorder and keep this guy going long enough, it would make a great book.” It’s a measure of Billy Bob Thornton’s status as a raconteur and engaging eccentric that no less a fellow traveler than Kinky Friedman, a man well noted for enjoying the sound of his own voice, went to the trouble of arranging for the sessions during which The Billy Bob Tapes: A Cave Full Of Ghosts was, well, talked. Thornton explains that this is his alternative to participating in “some cheap Hollywood biography, where I talk about fighting with an actor on the set, or who had sex with whom.” Instead, he rambles about his life and career, sharing stories about having grown up dirt-poor in a small Southern town during the years before racial desegregation. He describes his first tentative efforts to enter show business as a musician, and his move to Los Angeles as a nobody with no contacts and so few resources that he once starved himself into the hospital. There are also brief interjections from the likes of Angelina Jolie, Robert Duvall, Dwight Yoakam, and Thornton’s old writing partner Tom Epperson. They all think he’s a hell of a guy, but widely misunderstood. He agrees.

There’s rich material in the first half of the book, and Thornton talks about his hardscrabble years in a good-natured way, free of bitterness and self-pity. (“We weren’t starving,” he says. “We ate all the time. I mean, I didn’t really eat store-bought meat until I was in the first grade. If you live in the country, there’s always something to eat.”) He gets touchier as he talks about how fame has affected his life. His bewilderment at being the target of gossip columnists and Internet trolls is touching, but his complaints about critics and reality TV are no more interesting than any other celebrity’s.

The book goes downhill partly because Thornton is squeamishly protective of his present life in a way he isn’t when talking about his younger self or his family. (At the same time, he keeps some areas of his personal life under wraps. Readers wouldn’t know from this book that the repeatedly married Thornton has ever been involved with any women other than his current partner and Angelina Jolie. About his marriage to Jolie, he only says he screwed it up because he could never convince himself he was good enough for her.) He also takes his tabloid travails so seriously that he includes a two-page clarification of the “mashed potatoes without the gravy” incident without explaining exactly what he’s clarifying, as if he just assumes any media embarrassments he suffered years ago must still be vividly alive in readers’ minds. Thornton has never followed up on the success of his directorial debut, Sling Blade, partly because he can’t bear to have his work edited—but even the best parts of the book could stand some trimming and shaping. At one point, he simply lists famous actors and producers in his life “who have been golden,” pausing to say that “this is probably supposed to be part of the acknowledgements page… but I don’t care.” Editors are useful because, on a project like this, it’s good to have someone who does care.