Michael Ondaatje’s novella The Collected Works of Billy the Kid was originally written in 1970. Late in 2008, the author returned to re-imagine his former work, and this new edition also contains a new afterword by Ondaatje.
What is contained within this volume is not a straight biographical narrative about a famous Western outlaw, such as Ron Hansen’s The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford. Instead, it is a combination of poems and prose, imaginary interviews, songs and fragments that make up a collage of impressions on William “Billy the Kid” Bonney. Some of the poetry’s dream-like, stream-of-consciousness style is reminiscent of some of the great impressionist poets of earlier times, even a touch of James Joyce.
Ondaatje’s job as the author and compiler of these bits of prose is to re-imagine and re-focus the material he was able to get his hands on and fill in gaps and blank spaces as appropriate. The result is a challenging work that will appeal to fans of this poetic writing style. However, fans of classic Westerns or historical biographies of Billy the Kid be warned: this is not your typical shoot-‘em-up or retelling of the “Young Guns” saga about Bonney’s gang. The most prophetic passages in this collection are the impressions of Bonney’s former colleague and eventual arch-rival, Pat Garrett. Within these memories, the reader is allowed a glimpse of what may have actually been going on in both of their minds during their turbulent rivalry.
Michael Ondaatje admits to having been obsessed in his youth by stories of Western outlaws, and he does a nice job of piecing together this unique collection about Billy the Kid’s life. It’s also nice to revisit one of his first professional projects, written well before his most popular work, the award-winning novel (and eventual Oscar-winning film) The English Patient.