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...
(The entire section is 457 words.)