With his book “The Collected Works of Billy the Kid” Michael Ondaatje (author of “The English Patient”) brings us a unique hybrid of poetry and prose, mixed with both historical fact and fiction based on the true life story of the famous American outlaw William Bonney, who was better known as “Billy the Kid”. Already from this little bit of information, you can tell that this is not a book that follows any usual format or structure. Therefore there is no real “plot” to this book, and there is no linear story here either. Instead you get more of an account of a small period in one infamous person’s life.
What you’ll find in this book is a collection of short pieces invented from Ondaatje’s imagination and mingled with research into a vicious and fascinating personality from the pages of American folklore and history. Ondaatje has basically put himself into Mr. Bonney’s shoes and from inside the mind of this infamous criminal. With this, he attempts to give us a totally different view of who this man really was. We are exposed to Bonney the poet who looks at the crimes he’s committed almost as works of art. We are introduced to Bonney the lover, who is both gentle and harsh with his prostitute girlfriend, Angie. We are made familiar with Bonney the public figure who grants an interview and insists upon being called by his real name rather than the handle of “Billy the Kid” that the media has given him – obviously, from Ondaatje’s point of view, this is a self-respecting gunslinger. And finally, we are taken into the annals of Bonney’s own account of events that lead to his final demise.
Along with these bits and pieces, we are also given a small group of pictures which help illustrate this book. Mind you, the first page of this book opens with a blank picture with Ondaatje’s “caption” that says it’s a portrait of William Bonney. He does this as if to say: “a photograph of the real William Bonney would prejudice you in reading this book. It is the images of what I feel is the essence of Mr. Bonney that you will find here, and not what the world has heretofore come to believe was the persona of ‘Billy the Kid’. Therefore, take my words and your imagination and fill this photograph in for yourself”. While this is only my assumption here it does seem likely that this was Ondaatje’s intention, as that is what he asks his readers to do here.
Despite this being a very slim volume, Ondaatje packed an extreme amount within its covers. Perhaps this is because he uses a particular strength and artistry with words, which fills every page with a myriad of meanings within the minimalist text. This style allows the reader to feel as if they aren’t just reading about a historic person, but rather are able to wander around inside the mind of that person. This experience is one that only Ondaatje could have created, since no other author has used this particular format to tell such a story.
In sum, I would wholeheartedly recommend this book for anyone who is looking for a totally new and different experience in reading. The subject matter will appeal to those who generally aren’t interested in poetry, and the poetry will appeal to those who generally wouldn’t be interested in the subject matter. Moreover, the brevity of the book will appeal to those who are looking for a “quick read” while the depth of the language and material will appeal to those looking for a special and significantly original literary experience. What more can one say except read it, you won’t be sorry. This book deserves a strong four and a half stars out of five.
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