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The Collected Works of Billy the Kid

“Writers are outlaws.”


And though the case may be made by writers that stick to known form and measures as untrue, when it comes to hybrid literature the writers are, in fact, outlaws. Writers of hybrid works break form and structure to give life to a new way of thought and creativity. Away from the perceived ‘laws’ of the literary world.


It is no wonder that we are pushed out of the box into the lawlessness of hybridity through Michael Ondaatje’s “The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.” This hybrid book narrates William Bonney’s final year. Billy the Kid was a young and charming gunslinger outlaw that became known as an icon of American violence, killing for the first time when he was just twelve. Never before hearing about Billy the Kid, it was a headfirst dive into violence, intimacy, and empathy.


As a story it pieces together accounts from various literary and image pieces to create a new view of Billy the Kid through the imagination of Michael Ondaatje. By creating a seamless mix of accounts, the reader begins the journey feeling almost as an intruder, invading the privacy of Billy has the writing shows remarkable human compassion within a ruthless killer.


I am torn between fascination and disgust as the narrative progresses. There are interesting turns, captivating lyricism in the poetic pieces: “…AND I KNOW I KNOW/ it is my brain coming out like red grass/this breaking where red things wade” (95). These lines and storytelling draw me in as a reader. Make me curious about how to combine various pieces of literature and art into one collective piece. But then I read more of gore and violence in a hauntingly way that sticks with me that just leaves a hole in my stomach.


It is only the curious connection between violence and intimacy that kept me reading, unsure of how I felt about the character. Would I be okay with myself to feel at peace with someone so ready to kill? What does it say about humanity that we are quick to outcast and judge them as “Other” when their internal dialogue seems to be so closely linked to our own? How do I feel about the simultaneous humanization and dehumanization of an outlaw like Billy the Kid?


These questions are still unanswered but bring to light the necessary addition of various forms. The book seems to play on the idea of knowing the whole story. And sometimes the whole story isn’t told the same way. Sometimes we are required to do a little more work, little more research, and read across different formats and tones, to understand the fullness of a character. Perhaps the book shows truth in its writing. Shows the depth of humankind by pulling back layers of poetry, prose, news, photographs, clips, moments in time in scenes, to show one person. Perhaps it shows truth in how one can be both compelled and revolted.


John and Sallie were thankful, almost proud of him. I had a look I suppose of incredible admiration for him too. But when I looked at Angie, leaning against the rail of the verandah, her face was terrified. Simply terrified. (45)


I am not sure if I am Garrett, surprised and amazed at his short life or Angie, afraid of what we can become.