Stephen Scobie

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 884

[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.

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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 less they are to be trusted. If Billy himself had told the story to Nichol, "i would have written a different one." The paragraph is a dismissal of any possibility of objective truth in reporting; it insists that any observer changes what he sees as soon as he attempts to express it. Language does not report reality: it creates reality. From this, two conclusions might emerge: first, that even if Billy himself were to tell his own story, he could not tell it truly; and second, that the only "true" story is the one which rejects any attempt at historicity and aims instead at the "truth" of a work of art; "eventually all other stories will appear untrue beside this one." Of course there is a tongue-in-cheek element here: Nichol is fully enjoying his outrageous claim that his fifteen paragraph joke is going to replace all other versions of the story, including, presumably, that being written by his friend Michael Ondaatje. But beneath the joke is the deadly seriousness of the artist who can dismiss everything outside his own creation, claiming it alone as an absolute. And these views of language and art are surely at the very centre of Nichol's aesthetic, his proclamation of "the language revolution". What matters, then, is not so much the factual record … as the legendary image that he lived 21 years and killed 21 men….

It should be remembered that the mythical image of Billy as outlaw-hero is a Romantic idea, as the figure of the Outsider is, from Goethe's Werner on, the central Romantic image; and that Nichol himself … is a Romantic. This condemnation of history—as an impersonal process which coldly "stands back" from its subjects and thus judges rather than sympathises—is also a Romantic view. (p. 41)

What, then, is beyond history? It is legend, or myth. This is the level at which Ondaatje's book operates, but not Nichol's: and this is one of the fundamental differences between them. For Nichol, legend is as much a liar as history…. This view sees legend as more potent (literally as well as metaphorically) than history, but equally dangerous. And the danger lies precisely in its power, its stability, its vividness, its energy—all the qualities, in fact, of Ondaatje's book. But Nichol's Billy is at the bottom of the power structure…. His status is that of the ultimate loser, and he is always ephemeral:

       rumour has it that billy the kid never died.
       rumour is billy the kid. he never gets anywhere, being too short-lived.

This underlies the difference in length between the two books. It is not simply that Nichol's is a small joke tossed off in fifteen paragraphs: the shortness, the casualness of the book are intrinsic to its view of Billy. The difference between Ondaatje's 100 pages and Nichol's 5 is the difference between legend and rumour. Ondaatje's book fixes a certain view of the Kid into an intense, fully realized image; but for Nichol, the "eventual" truth is beyond even this, and his image of Billy is insubstantial, flickering, changing, dying. Ondaatje creates a myth; Nichol tells a joke. (pp. 41-2)

Stephen Scobie, "Two Authors in Search of a Character," in Canadian Literature, No. 54, Autumn, 1972, pp. 37-55.∗

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