Book Review: The Collected Works of Billy The Kid by Michael Ondaatje

What is it about this book that is so timeless? The Collected Works of Billy The Kid takes us inside the life, thoughts, desires, rationalisations and memories of this iconic character from the American West on the 1880s.

It’s called a novel on the cover but Ondaatje plays with structure by mixing poetry, prose, photographs and historical accounts. Ondaatje flows between forms to create an in-depth collection. Ondaatje does this so easily, so beautifully that I kept turning pages, and on my second cup of coffee, I was still in bed reading while it rained outside.

Ondaatje researched The Collected Works of Billy The Kid, turned to photographs, dime novels, contemporary newspapers and accounts from all those who came across him. What he gives us is a narrative, a memoir in a sense, one that shifts perspectives and forms, interior and exterior worlds, and all in a concise precise lyrical language. It’s amazing. I loved how each page took me to a new experience or incidence. Part myth, fiction, history and storytelling, The Collected Works of Billy The Kid is restrained but energetic.

He captures the language of the 1880s in the syntax and choice of words. Poems are often short and immersive.

MMMMMMMM mm thinking

moving across the world on horses

body split at the edge of their necks

neck sweat eating at my jeans

moving across the world on horses

 

Each poem or prose stands alone on the page. There is a lot of white space. They are tidily written, aligned at the top and left. He adds photographs. The style of a dime novel. Newspaper cuttings. He plays within the poems, one echoes nicely from the first stanza to the last one that is written in reverse of the first and is as stirring in both.

Garrett was “the ideal assassin. Public figure, the mind of a Doctor, his hands hairy, scarred, burned by rope” and “everything equiped to be that rare thing” Ondaatje finished the two page portrait the writing sane assassin five times with no punctuation and ending with sane.

Is it possible to understand the violence of Billy the Kid, one so young, and where did the need or ability to kill come from. “A motive? some reasoning we can give to explain all this violence. Was there a source for all this? yup – ” Billy and Brewer watched a friend murdered horrifically from a nearby hillside, one that stuck with the boy of eighteen.

Or so says Billy half way into the collection.

With the gentle yet graphic build up of Billy’s story in part written from his perspective and at other times from the women and friends around, I’m there. I trust Ondaatje completely. He writes with such empathy and the internal worlds are fascinating and lyrical. It’s an addictive journey. I couldn’t put the book down. The pauses between moments build up the tension and the desire to know more kept me there. The bite-sized stories, the form, isn’t just a recent invention, which is what I’d thought, it’s timeless. This book is from 1970. So what is it that carries so well? Ondaatje plays with form to suit the needs of each piece. It makes sense to write in broken and disjointed poems for Billy’s emotions as when he takes a woman to bed in the middle of a storm, or to write a simple shorter prose piece about the setting of the barn at the Chissums’ while waiting out a fever with the farm animals and rats.

What am I left with? As with all these reviews of mine, they are more of a personal response. Think of me as a hungry reader and writer looking for permission to write as my instinct demands, always reading as much as possible to find others who have played and experimented in ways, tones, forms and language. This book then is perfect for me right now. Why?

The Collected Works of Billy The Kid is immersive. The language is lyrical, poetic, and detailed and not just for understanding that era. Mixing up structure and form gives an added depth to the content and is not just for show. The emotional strength of the poetry is fed by those changes in form, rhythms and syntax. The combination of styles here works so well that the story affected me deeply. Ondaatje is such a master with words. There is no doubting him. The Collected Works of Billy The Kid kept me turning pages, taking notes, pausing to breathe in an image. I was invested, engaged, and curious. At times I had to put the book down and stare out the window. What more could I ask for as a writer or reader?

 The Collected Works of Billy The Kid

Michael Ondaatje

(Vintage Books, 1970. $11)

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Author: Sarah Leamy

Sarah Leamy is a freelance writer, a novelist, and cartoonist. She is a MFA student at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is on the editorial team at Upstreet, Hunger Mountain, and Wanderlust-Journal. She is currently writing a collection of short stories as well as a novel called Buzzed, Busted, and Broke. She has lived in England, Germany, Spain, Guatemala and the Southwest of the US. Sarah lives in Vermont.

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