Michael Ondaatje’s short novel, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid is unlike any book I’ve ever read. It’s a collage of imagined interviews, poems, prose and even photos, fragments that when pasted together form a strange and beautiful exploration of one of the most enduring mythic figures of the American West. William Bonney – aka Billy the Kid – led a short, tumultuous life about which not much is known outside of the fact that he was involved in a land dispute in New Mexico and was killed by Pat Garrett, a man with whom he’d been friends.
At once violent and sensuous, calloused and tender, the Collected Works paints an impossible picture of Billy, a murderer, a lover, a friend, a relic of a brief history in time in a very specific place – the Old West. Garrett has been hired by the moneymen of the territory to run Billy out and Ondaatje sets the two former friends on a slow collision course. Garrett is measured and cold-blooded, brutally efficient. As Billy says ‘[He] had the ability to kill someone on the street, walk back and finish a joke.’ Billy is more carefree but even he can see that the tides have changed against him and those of his ilk. He says ‘We were bad for progress in New Mexico and cattle politicians like Chisum wanted the bad name out.’
It’s the story of an end of an era. An exploration of power and the inevitable crush of progress. Ondaatje starts the book with a poem in which Billy states very clearly the arc of his life:
These are the killed.
(By me) —
Morton, Baker, early friends of mine.
Joe Bernstein. 3 Indians.
A blacksmith when I was twelve, with a knife.
5 Indians in self defence (behind a very safe rock).
One man who bit me during a robbery.
Brady, Hindman, Beckwith, Joe Clark,
Deputy Jim Carlyle, Deputy Sheriff J.W. Bell.
And Bob Ollinger. A rabid cat
birds during practice,
These are the killed.
(By them) —
Charlie, Tom O’Folliard
Angela D’s split arm,
and Pat Garrett
sliced off my head.
Blood a necklace on me all my life.
Billy’s life has long since been rendered cartoon-like by the outsized shadings of legend, however, Ondaatje does something to strip away that larger-than-life image. He has reinvented Billy, a myth, a character, a man under a cloak of violence. Blood a necklace on me all my life is a line that has stuck in my head for years. In the Collected Works, such startling moments abound.
Did the West ever truly exist outside of Hollywood’s creation – the cowboys and shootouts and all the rest? Maybe, maybe not, and that isn’t the concern of this book. Here Ondaatje embraces the myth, deconstructs it, reassembles it into a kaleidoscope of penny dreadful lore and poetry that somehow, to me, seems more real than any straight Western novel could ever hope to be.