The Collected Works of Billy the Kid

by Michael Ondaatje

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 457

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems depicts the last year of the outlaw’s life, his twenty-second, when Pat Garrett is made sheriff to clean up New Mexico. Shortly after Billy turns twenty-one, Garrett kills Tom O’Folliard, one of Billy’s gang, on Christmas Eve. “Blood a necklace on me all my life,” Billy says. Ondaatje tells the story in a series of pictures (sometimes literal pictures) that gradually moves the reader to the final confrontation between Billy and Garrett. Along the way, passages are spoken by various friends and enemies of Billy. Some of the pictures are poems, many in Billy’s voice.

The book is not intended to make a linear account of events, nor are the voices intended to evoke any characteristics of period speech or outlaw speech. Instead, Ondaatje wants to look at the mind of a man who became the subject of legend because of his cold-blooded killings. He wants to examine the meaning of that term “outlaw.” Ondaatje offers several scenes that show Billy as part of the ordinary world of human friendships, particularly in his appearances at the Chisum ranch and his friendship with Sallie Chisum, who recalls him as gentle, dapper, even witty. Garrett knew the Chisums, too, and he describes a time when Billy brought Angela D., his fiancé, to the ranch. Billy’s shooting of Sallie’s sick and aged cat ends that episode. Garrett says that Angela seemed terrified by this action. On a different visit to the Chisums, Billy recalls being told a story about a man who created a pack of spaniels so inbred, deformed, and vicious that the only thing they were fit for was destruction.

Billy also relates the sequence that follows his capture by Garrett. Garrett, earlier described as the “ideal assassin,” ties Billy and his men to their horses for the whole of a grueling five-day trek across the desert. Billy is even bareheaded; under the sun, he says “the brain juices begin to swell up.” By the end of the trip to jail, the whole episode is packed with nightmarish images of suffering. In a temporary jail, Billy recovers enough to give a lively interview to the Texas Star, and shortly after that he escapes, only to be killed by Garrett in the home of a friend.

The prose is interspersed with poems from Billy that demonstrate his distorted perceptions of the world. As a narrator, he cannot be trusted to tell the truth that others see. This misperception is a quality that makes him interesting to Ondaatje. Billy’s solitude and his habit of seeing things differently seem to suggest the outlaw quality of the artist, a subject Ondaatje addressed in later work.

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