There are few characters whose reputations have entered the realm of myth and continue to attract insatiable interest. Was there ever really a Ulysses or a Robin Hood? People still show up in Dodge City, Kansas looking for facts about U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon. Then there are real people whose life stories become so filled in by legend so that they will not rest within the bounds of reality: Kublai Khan, George Washington, Napoleon… and Billy the Kid.
The American west with its wide horizons and unformed society is one of our narion’s cherished myths, and no figure from that short spell in a vast land looms as large as the gunslinger who killed twenty-one men before his own violent death in 1881 at age twenty-one (if that’s what really happened). Billy the Kid has been the subject or made an appearance in hundreds of books, dozens of movies, songs, poems, even a popular ballet. He was a dangerous man with a wicked charm, and in the New Mexico territory where he rode there is now a highway named for him. There is even a Billy the Kid Message Board. Dwelling today in cyberspace is not a bad fate for someone whose real story is still filled with gaps and mysteries – fertile ground for growing a myth. Historians believe that he was born in New York City as Patrick McCarty, the son of Irish immigrants who moved west. He was also known as William Bonney and as Kid Antrim.
Such legendary figures may enjoy a certain durability because their actions and attitudes appeal to something deep within us. Billy the Kid may have been immature and searching for acceptance and a clear identity, but he was certainly active in the pursuit. The new novel “Lucky Billy” by John Vernon is filled with violence and rugged action, but it also delves into feelings and motivation.
He’d practiced relentlessly, drawn and shot at whiskey bottles, rehearsed the insults guaranteed to spark rage and make his adversary rashly pluck at his weapon. He’d armored himself with a scowl like Fred’s so no one could see the muddle inside. He’d shot a man before, he knew how it felt, and the next time he vowed to be calm as a nun. His intractable cockiness still felt oversized; he wished he’d grown into it now instead of later. He’d run out of patience. He liked to whip himself up. You sons of bitches better watch your backs. Look for a ditch you can die in, Brady. If this don’t beat stealing soldiers’ horses at three in the morning outside Arizona whorehouses!
— from Lucky Billy
John Vernon is Distinguished Professor of English at Binghamton University. His writing about the Old West comes from personal experience, for he lives part of each year in Colorado, and his novels with a western setting include “The Last Canyon” and “All for Love”. He also wrote about the post Civil War era in which “Lucky Billy” is set in the novel “Peter Doyle”. “Lucky Billy” was named 2008 Southwest Book of the Year by the Arizona Historical Society and the Seattle Times named it one of the ten best fiction books of the year. Vernon is also the author of a collection of personal essays, “A Book of Reasons”.
There are only two fictional characters in “Lucky Billy”. Most of the action and even some of the dialogue is drawn from the historical record, including the murder of Billy’s friend John Tunstall, the rancher and shopkeeper whose letters to his family back in England tell of his hopes of finding prosperity in the New Mexico Territory. Instead, the rivalries among Englishman Tunstall’s protective force and the mostly Irish rivals precipitated the 1878 Lincoln County War, a conflict in which gunmen on both sides were sometimes officially deputized. There was neither a prevailing sense of justice nor a system of justice. Billy joined with a gang called the Regulators to avenge Tunstall’s death. He killed the county sheriff, which generated the myth that Billy was responsible for 21 killings in his lifetime.
As a way of bringing peace and quiet to New Mexico, territorial governor Lew Wallace offered a pardon to those who would renounce violence. In a tensely-told scene in “Lucky Billy”, Wallace meets the Kid in the middle of the night in a remote cabin. Lew Wallace was a Union general in the Civil War and is best remembered today as a novelist, author of “Ben Hur”, a book that has never been out of print and was twice filmed as a great Hollywood epic. John Vernon seems to find his fellow writer as commanding a figure as Billy the Kid.
Wallace had also demonstrated in his novel, in the part he’d just begun – Book Eighth – that most of us lack hearts roomy enough for more than one absorbing passion. In one passion’s blaze others may live but only as lesser lights. This came from experience. His passion lay halfway across the world, in the ancient civilizations of Rome and Judea; in Roman coliseums, chariot races, the gladiatorial combat, slave ships, pirates, the gastronomy of figs, and ultimately in the coming of the Christ. But not in this alkali wasteland of New Mexico, in these mountains grim and fixed as walls of adamant, in those horrible dust storms and hideous people, bedraggled and unfriendly, dirty, always babbling. They bent over their hoes, they ate the bitter dust, they cowered in their wagons. They found themselves at the mercy of outlaws who held life cheap and did nothing about it; instead they wanted him to bring them peace and order.
Billy refuses Governor Wallace’s offer and rides off to what will be his own violent death at the hands of Pat Garrett, who went on to write his own book about Billy the Kid.
On OFF THE PAGE, John Vernon joins Bill Jaker to discuss “Lucky Billy”, the thin line between fiction and history and the ongoing legend of Billy the Kid.