Elevate Difference

Lucky Billy: A Novel about Billy The Kid

Anything that the imagination can concoct in the way of murders and desperate deeds may be heard upon the streets now in regard to Billy The Kid, but getting at the truth of the many rumors is another thing altogether. -- The Daily New Mexican, May 5, 1881

Billy they don’t want you to be so free. -- Bob Dylan

I: Backstory Billy The Kid earned his renown in the Lincoln County War (1878-1881), a mercantile conflict that tore apart New Mexico. The war pitted a corrupt Santa Fe political/financial “Ring” against young farmers and ranchers who moved to Lincoln from the East when the West opened up and the cattle business boomed. The Hispanic population tended to side with the new Anglo arrivals—an unusual coalition in the West.

The Santa Fe Ring controlled Lincoln via Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan. These two henchmen ran Lincoln by money and pistol. “They intimidated, oppressed, and crushed people who were obliged to deal with them,” wrote one Lincoln resident. Justice in Lincoln County was what Murphy and Dolan wanted, meaning what the Ring wanted.

John Tunstall, a British merchant, became leader of the young ranchers by entering into business competition with Murphy and Dolan. In February 1878, Sheriff William Brady, Ring stooge and embezzler, deputized a posse that included some of the worst saddle trash in the Wild West. They were supposed to arrest Tunstall. Instead, they assassinated him. The killing touched off a powder keg. Lincoln fell into savage anarchy.

In 1877, age seventeen, Billy went to work for the Murphy-Dolan faction. When he met Tunstall and the cowboys who worked for him, he found them more amenable. He switched sides. This decision says something about Billy because it is difficult to review the war and not conclude that although Tunstall and his group weren’t angels, they were of better character than the Dolanites. Tunstall’s side nonetheless lost the war. Though the hostilities’ aftermath was complex, an aspect of it was that Billy became a symbol of resistance to the Ring, especially among the Hispanics (Billy spoke Spanish). Billy was the only person ever convicted of committing a crime during the war. Ring murderers went scot-free.

II: Billy Lives Hundreds of works of fiction about The Kid exist. His representation runs from Robin Hood to psychotic killer. Ninety-nine films have been made about him. The novels are legion. They include a fine telling by Elizabeth Fackler (Billy The Kid: The Legend of El Chivato), a work that stands out in a bibliography dominated by men. There is a ballet too, with music by Aaron Copland, and a lied by André Previn. Inventing Billy The Kid, an extraordinary metacritical work by Stephen Tatum, demonstrates how depictions of Billy reflect the times in which they are created. On it goes: The Billy industry.

III: Lucky Billy So where does this new novel about The Kid stand?

John Vernon knows the facts. It is also a strength of Lucky Billy that he is able to sketch convincingly so many minor characters. He’s precise at geography and vegetation. A lengthy passage in which Billy watches farmers thresh wheat is superb. He can nail a sunset. An elaborate set piece involving a siege in a house is nicely orchestrated.

But it’s the portrayal of Billy that is the heart of any work about him.

Vernon’s Kid is reckless, brave, callous, opportunistic, and not terribly bright. He shoots small birds more or less for the hell of it. He has an “air of Napoleon.” He talks to his deceased mother—a motif that makes him seem deluded, which is the point. His killing mantra is, “It’s not me, it’s the gun.” He robs a peddler at gunpoint and shoots a rustler coldly then steals his sweater. This jaundiced view of Billy supports a reactionary ideology toward the Lincoln war.

Let me explain.

In the choice between siding with the law in Lincoln or refusing to bow to that authority, choosing the latter—as Billy did—was an honourable resistance. This view foregrounds the violent, sinister people who ruled New Mexico and avows that those who took up arms against them are worthy of sympathy because their insurrection was justifiable. Vernon pays lip service to this reading, but he is so intent on de-romanticizing and debunking Billy and his companions that the novel downplays what was at stake in the war.

For example: Vernon calls Thomas Catron the “putative” head of the Santa Fe Ring. The author doesn’t mean us to take this characterization with a wink.

Catron, the attorney general then a district attorney of New Mexico, had huge land holdings. Among his friends were Bill Rynerson, a district attorney who assassinated the Chief Justice of New Mexico and got away with it; Samuel Axtell, the Governor, fired by President Hayes for corruption; Warren Bristol, judge, who lied on the record to protect Catron. To call Catron the “putative” head of the Ring is to problematize his role in the ruthless venality against which Billy and his confreres fought. Let’s get this straight: The Santa Fe Ring ruled with an iron fist; Catron and his Ring deserved overthrowing.

In other words, Lucky Billy loads the guns against The Kid. In this portrait, we lose all sense of the young man about whom a number of positive testimonials of the time pay tribute. To illustrate: Dr. Henry Holt was the only physician in New Mexico in the late 1870s. He knew The Kid and he had a positive opinion of him.

This portrait that Vernon draws in Lucky Billy not only disrespects The Kid’s life as a whole, it undermines the novel. Again and again we see the same Billy, and this causes the reader to lose interest in him as the central character. Even Billy’s lovemaking isn’t very hot.

Still, it's a good thing we have Mr. Vernon's portrait of The Kid, Lucky Billy adds significantly to the canon.

Enough. Anybody ought to poke into the Lincoln County War some time. It’s a lesson in the viciousness of American power toward its own people. This is why Billy Lives, why understanding him as a scapegoat is a legitimate, even necessary perspective, and why his folk hero status remains despite the debunkers. To understand this vantage and thus see the same tale in a version sympathetic to The Kid, I highly recommend the novel I mention above by Elizabeth Fackler. Her version, published in 1993, remains still the best fictional account of the greatest American outlaw.

Note: Special thanks to Mark Halfmoon.

Written by: Neil Flowers, April 1st 2009

Michael Ondaatje's work on Billy won the Governor-General's prize for poetry in English in 1971. The "G-G" is Canada's highest literary honour (Michael is Canadian). In a review of Elizabeth Fackler's novel about The Kid, I mention Michael's work as one of the best pieces on Billy. "The Collected Works" is intense, unforgettable. The book was written before much of the best historiography of the Lincoln County War was available and seems to be based mostly on Walter Noble Burns's "The Saga of Billy The Kid" (1926). The quotes from Sally Chusum and Paulita Maxwell, for example, are straight from Burns. Consequently, "The Collected Work" has no real political framework to understand the context in which Billy fought and died. Anyone interested in reading my review of Ms. Fackler's novel can find it at Amazon. Just type in "Elizabeth Fackler" at the Amazon book search.

Thanks for the review!Also check out Michael Ondaajte's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. It's brutally beautiful poetry.