Billy the Kid became part of Western lore even before his death at 21 in 1881. A habitual thief and occasional killer, he was so young that his crimes and escapes caught the attention of the popular press of his time. Journalists romanticized his exploits, but notoriety did him no favors. Billy was a fugitive from the law until Sheriff Pat Garrett tracked him down and killed him. The Kid’s fame grew posthumously, as Garrett himself and many others contributed to the mythology surrounding him.
Violent young men are not uncommon in any era, though most live and die in obscurity. Few are mindless marauders, and their brief lives often seem a tragic waste of potential to those who knew them well. This is true of Billy the Kid, so it’s probably time to deconstruct his myth and restore him to human authenticity.
Regrettably, Ron Hansen’s new novel, “The Kid,” has not done that.
It begins well, with a direct address to the reader: “You’ll want to know about his mother, she being crucial to the Kid’s becomings.” That first sentence efficiently displays this novel’s charm and limitations.
“The Kid” is narrated with a wry voice capable of turning a nice phrase. When Billy’s father, Michael McCarty, deserts the family soon after the start of the Civil War, we are told it’s because the “disenchanted husband discovered a high degree of patriotism in himself and joined the 69th Infantry New York State Volunteers.” When the Kid’s mother, Catherine Bonney, finds herself alone, we are informed that she “became cordial” with William Henry Harrison Antrim, “an amiable goof . . . who adored his fine Cate when he wasn’t drunk, and he got on with the boys.”
That deadbeat deserts the family as well, leaving Catherine to support her two sons by selling baked goods when she isn’t bedridden with tuberculosis. A variety of men go in and out of their lives until 1874 when Cate dies. She bequeaths the 14-year-old William Henry Bonney McCarty Antrim nothing more than the collection of names he would use in a variety of combinations during his own short life.
Hansen’s research is admirably thorough. His narrator, however, rarely allows Billy or anyone else to be revealed through thought, emotion, words or action. We are told that Billy was charming. We are told he sang well. We are told he was a good dancer. We are told girls liked him. We are told that he fell in with bad companions, many of whom would live much longer than the Kid did and who would die in the fullness of their years, having turned their lives around. We are invited to notice that the Kid never had a chance to straighten out because didn’t live long enough.
Fair point, although the same could be said of those he killed. Soon, the novel becomes akin to reading a census. We are told whom the Kid killed, and whose horse he stole, and who he was when he did it, and whom he met afterward, and who traveled with him to his next hideout, and who visited him there. Entire paragraphs consist of little more than a list of proper names, like the Bible’s begats, without any reminder of who these people are and why they’re in the Kid’s story.
And that is this novel’s central problem: These named persons cannot properly be considered characters. Some are initially given a short biography and physical description, but none is fully realized. The narrator just won’t get out of their way.
Intrusive and seemingly adrift in space and time, he is not a character, nor does he sustain a consistent voice. In general, he speaks with the antique diction of mid-19th century Western fiction, but he also knows what would become of Billy’s acquaintances many decades later. At odd intervals, he uses words and phrases that only came into frequent use in the mid- to late-20th century, such as “goof,” “kill shots” and “this is awkward.” Strange anachronisms sneak in. “Truth serum” (sodium pentothal) dates to 1934. I loved the line, “What’s hamstering in your head, Kid?” But hamsters didn’t arrive in America until the Great Depression. And how many Americans of any century would say “jackeroo?” That’s a mid-20th century Australian term for cowboy.
With “The Kid,” Mr. Hansen covers the same territory that Michael Wallis did in his excellent biography “Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride” (2007). The factual basis of both books is solid, but the author of historical fiction owes readers more than that. Novelists assume both the freedom and the duty to transform names and facts into believable characters whose actions become comprehensible.
Granted, it’s not easy to humanize a violent young criminal encased in 135 years of myth, but there is a vast literature available on the lives of modern gang members with similar police records and childhoods equally disfigured by poverty, alcoholism, brutality and death. This knowledge could have been brought to bear on Billy the Kid’s story. The musical defense of “West Side Story” — they’re depraved on accounta they’re deprived — isn’t good enough for literature or real life. It is worth our time and effort to understand such boys, alive and long-dead. “The Kid” allows Billy and others like him to remain unknown, if not unknowable.
Mary Doria Russell is the author, most recently, of “Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral.”
By Ron Hansen
Scribner. 301 pp. $26