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Tricks with a knife

"The Collected Works of Billy the Kid" was first published by a small press in the 1970s when its author, Michael Ondaatje, was still in his 20s and two decades away from the success and fame that would arrive with "The English Patient." Yet this early work already shows a door opening into the future; indeed, it might be argued that here, in his meditation on the legendary American outlaw, Ondaatje was already assembling the key tools in his writer's bag.

Not much is known for sure about Billy the Kid: His real name was William Bonney; he was involved, on the losing side, in a vicious land war in Lincoln County, N.M., then the most violent territory in America; he killed many men and himself died in 1881, at age 21, shot by his friend Pat Garrett at Fort Sumner. These are the bare bones of the legend, but Ondaatje pries the reader's mind loose from them, bringing the climax of Billy's tale, and his psychology, to life with a shocking ferocity.

"The Collected Works of Billy the Kid" hinges on Garrett's pursuit of Billy and is structured, as Ondaatje notes in an afterword written for this new edition (Vintage: 122 pp., $14), "somewhat like a valise containing the collected raw material for a collage," comprising "poems and prose and imaginary interviews and fragments."

The book begins with a poem, in which Billy announces:

These are the killed.

(By me) --

Morton, Baker, early friends of mine.

Joe Bernstein. 3 Indians.

A blacksmith when I was twelve, with a knife.

5 Indians in self defence (behind a very safe rock).

One man who bit me during a robbery.

Brady, Hindman, Beckwith, Joe Clark,

Deputy Jim Carlyle, Deputy Sheriff J.W. Bell.

And Bob Ollinger. A rabid cat

birds during practice,

These are the killed.

(By them) --

Charlie, Tom O'Folliard

Angela D's split arm,

and Pat Garrett

sliced off my head.

Blood a necklace on me all my life.

What strikes us here is the casual intimacy of Billy's voice, drawing us close and inviting us to linger. The story then accelerates, with Billy describing the death of Tom O'Folliard. "Garrett fired at O'Folliard's flash and took his shoulder off. Tom O'Folliard screaming out onto the quiet Fort Sumner street, Christmas night, walking over to Garrett, no shoulder left, his jaws tilting up and down like mad bladders going. Too mad to even aim at Garrett . . . as Garrett took clear aim and blew him out."

It's blistering writing; that wonderful "Christmas night" somehow being the detail that magically animates the scene. Much later Billy tells us more about O'Folliard, reviving a character who has already died in a horrible way. "His feet danced with energy. On a horse he did tricks all the time, somersaulting, lying back. He was riddled with energy. He walked, both arms crooked over a rifle at the elbow. Legs always swinging extra."

The prose has camera-eye immediacy. In a more recent book, "The Conversations" (2002), Ondaatje explored with Walter Murch the mysteries and wonders of film editing. In "The Collected Works of Billy the Kid," he was already obsessively feeding off this craft from another medium. He doesn't so much tell the story as splice it together, weaving together moments and sequences, cutting between emotions, or from image to image, shaking the kaleidoscope for maximum effect. The book doesn't read like a film, but it stays in the imagination like one, dream-like, so that its characters start to haunt us.

Here's Billy's lover, in a ballad: "Miss Angela D has a mouth like a bee / she eats and off all your honey / her teeth leave a sting on your very best thing / and its best when she gets the best money." And here, in a very different tone, is Pat Garrett:

"Public figure, the mind of a doctor, his hands hairy, scarred, burned by rope, on his wrist there was a purple stain there all his life. Ideal assassin for his mind was unwarped. Had the ability to kill someone on the street, walk back and finish a joke. One who had decided what was right and forgot all morals. He was genial to everyone even his enemies. He genuinely enjoyed people, some who were odd, the dopes, the thieves. Most dangerous for them, he understood them, what motivated their laughter and anger, what they liked to think about, how they had to act for them to like him. An academic murderer -- only his vivacious humour and diverse interests made him the best kind of company."

This compressed portrait of the lawman predicts the ambiguous and tragic figures -- like Almásy in "The English Patient" -- who populate Ondaatje's later fiction. Ondaatje's a poet, and a romantic, but even as a young man he saw clearly the workings of the world's cruel clock. Time ticks on, and men in power hire men like Pat Garrett to do their dirty work for them. "We were bad for progress in New Mexico and cattle politicians like Chisum wanted the bad name out," says Billy matter-of-factly, knowing that he stands at the end of an era, about to be blown away like sagebrush in the desert. "They made Garrett sheriff and he sent me a letter saying move out or I will get you Billy."

Ondaatje makes vivid the loneliness and physical texture of the Southwest, its pollen, its storms, its snow. Remarkable, given that he'd never been there when he wrote the book. Then again, he did the same with the Sahara in "The English Patient." Here we feel the wind, the grit of the sand, and Billy bears witness to the marvels of the light: "she walks slow to the window / lifts the sackcloth / and jams it horizontal on a nail / so the bent oblong of sun / hoists itself across the room / framing the bed the white flesh/ of my arm.'

The writing throughout is sensuous, violent, visceral, never static, summoning a lost world with imagination and language that flash like lightning. It's tempting to think that Sam Peckinpah or Rudy Wurlitzer had read this text when they collaborated on Peckinpah's masterpiece "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid," released in 1974. In any event "The Collected Works of Billy the Kid" already feels like a modern classic, the book in which a great writer first learned to do a trick with a knife.

Rayner's new book, "A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming-Of-Age," will be published next month. Paperback Writers appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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