In his novel “The Kid,” author Ron Hansen draws from many sources to create a straightforward and colorful — if not entirely truthful — picture of the daredevil outlaw Billy the Kid.
by Ron Hansen
Scribner, 320 pp., $26
“The Kid” by Ron Hansen may be the definitive book on Billy the Kid, the elusive character from America’s Old West.
It is written with no equivocation on the identity of the outlaw’s father. No more mystery over why he sometimes took the surname Bonney and sometimes Antrim. No more doubts about whom he shot and/or killed, rode with or made love to.
Hansen tells all in a definitive manner — straightforward, colorfully.
Truthfully? Not entirely.
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The warning signs are everywhere. The cover identifies the book as a novel, and the epigraph is from William Goldman: “Not that it matters, but most of what follows is true.”
The author’s acknowledgments start with this: “This is a work of fiction based on fact.”
“The Kid” relies mainly on 13 books, Hansen writes. They include the account given by Pat Garrett, the man who killed Billy, and Walter Noble Burns’ 1926 “The Saga of Billy the Kid,” which essentially made Billy the Kid famous internationally as a tragic figure of the recently departed American frontier.
Hansen also lists several books whose authors focus their attention on sorting truth from the myths, lies and legends that have grown up around the outlaw in the 135 years since his death.
Taking a definitive approach that plows under historical quibbles allows Hansen to add detail and dialogue to the story, character and wit to Billy — even intimate love scenes and the short-lived thoughts and feelings Billy had as his body “acquired its education in dying” after Garrett’s .44-caliber bullet tore through his chest and the left atrium of his heart.
Hansen, who wrote “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” admits that he “streamlined the history and eliminated some characters.” Given that he’s making only the barest claim to accuracy, he might have culled the herd more in the interest of clarity.
He is clear, however, on the Lincoln County War in the New Mexico territory in the late 1870s, the conflict that swept up an 18-year-old boy with known “weaponry skills.” It started as a “petty grocery store rivalry” for supplying an Army post and Indian reservation, included conflicts among cattlemen and ended with both stores closing. But its killings and violence spawned the legend of Billy the Kid.
In Hansen’s telling of the story, Billy was more horse thief and cattle rustler than murderer. At trial, the Kid fessed up to only two killings and those were in self-defense, he said. But that was before his final jailbreak, when he killed two guards. He was on hand for other murders, but Hansen raises questions about whose bullet did the killing and if Billy even fired a shot on some of those occasions.
While the Hansen version of Billy the Kid might not be as quick with a gun as in other tales, he’s ever ready with a droll comment. Asked his reaction to needling about his horse thieving and alleged reckless killings, he notes he was about to lose his “cherubic demeanor.”
Billy has been portrayed as a scapegoat for corrupt politicians, a maniacal killer and varying combinations of those extremes. As Hansen says at the end of his book, the Kid has become “to a great degree each person’s wild invention.” This is Hansen’s version — a wisecracking daredevil.