The Collected Works of Billy the Kid

by Michael Ondaatje

© Vintage.

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Vintage, 2009

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid was Michael Ondaatje's first novel, originally published in 1970 to critical acclaim. It was later adapted into a play and performed at a regional theatre in San Francisco where it received generally glowing reviews both for the actors' performances and the text. This second Vintage trade paperback edition is likely to garner more attention and far wider readership simply because people now know who Ondaatje is.

The cover of this little gem illustrates why it is being reprinted, aside from its intrinsic value as a novel. The largest type, front and center, is reserved for Ondaatje's name. Just above his name is a line in smaller type that notes "Booker Prize-winning author of The English Patient." The title falls third in importance. Ironically, this poetic prose can stand on its own merits.

The anticipated attention is well-deserved. The lyric and poetic use of language we have come to expect from Ondaatje is on display here, as is a non-linear plot line. "It began as a small flurry of poems" allegedly written by Billy the Kid, according to Ondaatje's very helpful "Afterword." A childhood obsession with cowboys, despite growing up in Sri Lanka and going to school in England, eventually metamorphosed into a few poems in the persona of Billy. He read a book about Billy and poured over topographical maps of the West while teaching in Canada.

He was on "an unstoppable horse" and the book turned into an "improvisation on a historical figure who had by the 1960s turned into a cartoon." Drawing on a variety of contemporary accounts Ondaatje reinvented Billy from the ground up.

This fictional account contains more "truth" and captures the seeming essence of Billy more accurately than most purely historical attempts.

In reality, Billy the Kid passed into legend so long ago that gleaning facts has become a nearly impossible task. Perhaps it is just as well to create a well-told tale as it is to encumber the reader with mundane facts.

The conflict that propels this novel is the relationship between the lawman Pat Garrett and Billy. Garrett was a strange bird. He taught himself French in his teens and never spoke it in public or read books in French for the rest of his life. He spent two years on an extended drunk so he could learn how to handle alcohol; this was not his most successful effort. He had exotic birds shipped to him on ice so that he could stuff them. Although a lawman, Garrett was the "ideal assassin" who was perfectly capable of shooting a malefactor, yet could also tell Billy that he was on the way and should get out of town. Sallie Chisum said that she knew Billy and Pat intimately: "There was good mixed in with the bad in Billy and bad mixed in with the good in Pat….Both were worth knowing."

Ondaatje's language is poetic, even in the prose passages, and even in the most macabre. Consider this description of what one might find on opening Billy's grave. "From the head there'd be a trail of vertebrae like a row of pearl buttons off a rich coat down to the pelvis….And a pair of handcuffs holding ridiculously the fine ankle bones." There is even an excerpt from a "dime novel" revealing Billy's brief affair with a Mexican princess, part of the legends which sprang up around him during his life and afterwards.

In this little book one senses the power Ondaatje was to bring to bear in his novels. Words are not wasted, the poetic quality such that it won one of Canada's major poetry prizes in 1971. It is a style that was to come to fruition in his biography of jazz great Buddy Bolden, and later in the novels The English Patient, which won the Booker Prize in 1992, and Divisidero. The latter two, as with The Collected Works of Billy the Kid[, feature protagonists who don't quite fit, who are searching for their place in society.

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