A portrait of the world-famous, short-lived outlaw and the milieu that created his myth.
For veteran novelist Hansen (She Loves Me Not: New and Selected Stories, 2012, etc.), Billy the Kid was one part angry gunslinger, one part victim of circumstance: the late-19th-century New Mexico territory was so ill-governed, he argues, that the Kid was no more lawless in many ways than the ostensible lawmen. Indeed, he wasn’t born violent: his preferred crime early on was horse thievery, his chief talent was wily escapes, and his first killing was arguably self-defense. But he soon fell in with a gang of fellow thieves and became entangled in the Lincoln County War, in which rival businesses’ scrabbling for authority devolved into gunplay. “It was a collective thing, but only Kid Bonney got accused of the murders,” the unnamed narrator explains after one gunfight ended, typical of his mythos. The Kid’s perceived criminality was a function of who was in charge; the territory’s governor, Lew Wallace, promised the Kid a pardon but was too distracted by the epic Christian novel he was writing, Ben-Hur, to protect him from Pat Garrett, another outlaw who wound up wearing a sheriff’s badge. Hansen has done his research, which is often to the novel’s detriment—the Lincoln County War involved a raft of characters, and he doesn’t always do much to color them. The Kid, too, is often a disappointingly vague figure, a handsome scrapper talented at escapes and charming with women but hard to get a bead on. The novel’s strength is its understanding of the fluidity of authority in “a West where judgments of legality go to the highest bidder or at the insistence of a gun.” By the end of the novel (and Billy’s brief life) it’s clear he hasn’t gotten an entirely fair shake. But the novel reveals more of the territory’s character than its occupants’.
A somber and surprisingly dry Wild West tale.