You pick up a Rushdie or a Marquez or Bolaño–these are the kind of heavy works which aren’t works at all, but are more conveyances of the voice of the writer, inexhaustible, indulgent, arcane. And then there are books, like physical objects, that do one thing and do it perfectly. That’s Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.
It’s not actually the writings of William Bonney, although when it was first published in 1970 it was mistaken for that by one of the few papers to review it. I’m holding the 2008 reprint, a collection of poems, prose, meditations, photographs, all revolving around the theme of Billy the Kid and his brief, violent life.
This is a young book, as messy as its subject, and its obliqueness serves at times to mask the rawness of the writer; but Ondaatje gets the important stuff right. “Pat Garrett,” Billy tells us early on, “sliced off my head. / Blood a necklace on me all my life.” The key insight that drives the whole thing is the understanding that Bonney’s life was significant only to the degree in which it was saturated by a violence that breeds like cancer. “In the end,” he writes, “the only thing that never changed, never became deformed, were animals;” although even this statement is contested before it’s all over.
Ondaatje takes the major scenes of Bonney’s life and breaks them apart, blurs the reflection and jigsaws them back together in a manner that embraces the clichéd sensibility of the West while at the same time undercutting the mystique to reveal the true mechanistic insanity at work. “He had come to Sumner then,” he writes of Garrett, “mind full of French he never used, everything equipped to be that rare thing – a sane assassin sane assassin sane assassin sane…”
Like a typical Ondaatje book, every character is more the bodily receptacle of a death drive than a fully realized individual. Garret, we are told early on, “organized a schedule to learn how to drink.” Later we are told that, “flowers watched him.”
But before we can cringe at lines like these we find on almost every page a thought or a word that turns in a manner wholly unexpected. “There are only 2 graves that belong to women,” we are told of Boot Hill, “and they are the only suicides in that graveyard.” Each time the theme returns to horror, to debasement, to malformed beings lurching across a stark landscape. This is in some ways a horror show, but Ondaatje is too subtle to identify the source–the land, the people, the myth itself? No such answers here, thank god.
I read it three weeks ago. I should have read it 15 years ago. But after the performance fades the real take-away is the afterword by Ondaatje. It took him three years to put together 100 pages. It’s the first time he wrote any prose, most of which he left alone after the first draft. He spent most of his time with the pages spread out on the floor of his apartment, trying to find the thread to his own work, trying to get the pages to “spark.” And this book is alive–not as a story but as a living thing, a malignant tumor, or a crystal ball.