B(arrie) P(hillip) Nichol Stephen Scobie - Essay

Stephen Scobie

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In The Collected Works of Billy the Kid] Nichol's jokes are, however, on potentially serious subjects. To work out all the thematic implications which his fifteen paragraphs barely suggest may seem like building mountains out of molehills; and, though I believe the foundations are there for such an enterprise, the elaboration should not obscure the fact that the most characteristic virtues of Nichol's book are its wit, its economy, and its refusal to take itself too seriously.

Nichol's title stands in a long tradition of books claiming to tell the "truth" about Billy…. The point about all these "true" and "authentic" biographies is that very few of them are. The historical facts about Billy have been buried under a vast accretion of legend. (p. 38)

Nichol's alterations and manipulations of historical fact are not due, as is the case with many previous writers of "true" and "authentic" histories, to ignorance or to the desire to "justify" Billy; rather, they fit in with the most recent developments of the legend of Billy the Kid, which move away from the simple pendulum of what Kent Ladd Steckmesser calls "The Satanic Billy" and "The Saintly Billy" towards much more complex uses of the total idea of Billy the Kid, fact and fiction, as a mythological character. (pp. 39-40)

[Consider] Nichol's title: "this" he assures us "is the true eventual story of billy the kid." The first page of Nichol's book is a demonstration of the absolute relativity of any definition of "truth" in a case like this.

It is not the story as he told it for he did not tell it to me. he told it to others who wrote it down, but not correctly. there is no true eventual story but this one. had he told it to me i would have written a different one. i could not write the true one had he told it to me. (p. 40)

Nichol's paragraph may be read as a commentary on [the "true" and "authentic" histories]. The "true" and "eventual" story cannot be told by any eye-witness; the more "reliable" their claims are,...

(The entire section is 884 words.)