The Collected Works Of Billy The Kid

Paperback | August 26, 2008

byOndaatje, Michael

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Not a story about me through their eyes then. Find the beginning, the slight silver key to unlock it, to dig it out. Here then is a maze to begin, be in. (p. 20)

Funny yet horrifying, improvisational yet highly distilled, unflinchingly violent yet tender and elegiac, Michael Ondaatje’s ground-breaking book The Collected Works of Billy the Kid is a highly polished and self-aware lens focused on the era of one of the most mythologized anti-heroes of the American West. This revolutionary collage of poetry and prose, layered with photos, illustrations and “clippings,” astounded Canada and the world when it was first published in 1969. It earned then-little-known Ondaatje his first of several Governor General’s Awards and brazenly challenged the world’s notions of history and literature.

Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid (aka William H. Bonney / Henry McCarty / Henry Antrim) is not the clichéd dimestore comicbook gunslinger later parodied within the pages of this book. Instead, he is a beautiful and dangerous chimera with a voice: driven and kinetic, he also yearns for blankness and rest. A poet and lover, possessing intelligence and sensory discernment far beyond his life’s 21 year allotment, he is also a resolute killer. His friend and nemesis is Sheriff Pat Garrett, who will go on to his own fame (or infamy) for Billy’s execution. Himself a web of contradictions, Ondaatje’s Garrett is “a sane assassin sane assassin sane assassin sane assassin sane assassin sane” (p. 29) who has taught himself a language he’ll never use and has trained himself to be immune to intoxication. As the hero and anti-hero engage in the counterpoint that will lead to Billy’s predetermined death, they are joined by figures both real and imagined, including the homesteaders John and Sallie Chisum, Billy’s lover Angela D, and a passel of outlaws and lawmakers. The voices and images meld, joined by Ondaatje’s own, in a magnificent polyphonic dream of what it means to feel and think and freely act, knowing this breath is your last and you are about to be trapped by history.

I am here with the range for everything
corpuscle muscle hair
hands that need the rub of metal
those senses that
that want to crash things with an axe
that listen to deep buried veins in our palms
those who move in dreams over your women night
near you, every paw, the invisible hooves
the mind’s invisible blackout the intricate never
the body’s waiting rut.
(p. 72)

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From the Publisher

Not a story about me through their eyes then. Find the beginning, the slight silver key to unlock it, to dig it out. Here then is a maze to begin, be in. (p. 20)Funny yet horrifying, improvisational yet highly distilled, unflinchingly violent yet tender and elegiac, Michael Ondaatje’s ground-breaking book The Collected Works of Billy t...

From the Jacket

Not a story about me through their eyes then. Find the beginning, the slight silver key to unlock it, to dig it out. Here then is a maze to begin, be in. (p. 20)Funny yet horrifying, improvisational yet highly distilled, unflinchingly violent yet tender and elegiac, Michael Ondaatje’s ground-breaking book The Collected Works of Billy t...

Michael Ondaatje is the author of five novels, a memoir, a nonfiction book on film, and ten other books of poetry. The English Patient won, amongst other awards, the Booker Prize; Anil’s Ghost won the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, the Giller Prize, and the Prix Medicis. He lives in Toronto.

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:128 pages, 8.04 × 5.48 × 0.45 inPublished:August 26, 2008Publisher:Knopf CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0307397610

ISBN - 13:9780307397614

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Read from the Book

I send you a picture of Billy made with the Perry shutter as quick as it can be worked–Pyro and soda developer. I am making daily experiments now and find I am able to take passing horses at a lively trot square across the line of fire–bits of snow in the air–spokes well defined–some blur on top of wheel but sharp in the main–men walking are no trick–I will send you proofs sometime. I shall show you what can be done from the saddle without ground glass or tripod–please notice when you get the specimens that they were made with the lens wide open and many of the best exposed when my horse was in motion*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’FolliardAngela D’s split arm,and Pat Garrettsliced off my head.Blood a necklace on me all my life.*Christmas at Fort Sumner, 1880. There were five of us together then. Wilson, Dave Rudabaugh, Charlie Bowdre, Tom O’Folliard, and me. In November we celebrated my 21st birthday, mixing red dirt and alcohol–a public breathing throughout the night. The next day we were told that Pat Garrett had been made sheriff and had accepted it. We were bad for progress in New Mexico and cattle politicians like Chisum wanted the bad name out. They made Garrett sheriff and he sent me a letter saying move out or I will get you Billy. The government sent a Mr. Azariah F. Wild to help him out. Between November and December I killed Jim Carlyle over some mixup, he being a friend.Tom O’Folliard decided to go east then, said he would meet up with us in Sumner for Christmas. Goodbye goodbye. A few days before Christmas we were told that Garrett was in Sumner waiting for us all. Christmas night. Garrett, Mason, Wild, with four or five others. Tom O’Folliard rides into town, leaning his rifle between the horse’s ears. He would shoot from the waist now which, with a rifle, was pretty good, and he was always accurate.Garrett had been waiting for us, playing poker with the others, guns on the floor beside them. Told that Tom was riding in alone, he went straight to the window and shot O’Folliard’s horse dead. Tom collapsed with the horse still holding the gun and blew out Garrett’s window. Garrett already halfway downstairs. Mr. Wild shot at Tom from the other side of the street, rather unnecessarily shooting the horse again. If Tom had used stirrups and didnt swing his legs so much he would probably have been locked under the animal. O’Folliard moved soon. When Garrett had got to ground level, only the horse was there in the open street, good and dead. He couldnt shout to ask Wild where O’Folliard was or he would’ve got busted. Wild started to yell to tell Garrett though and Tom killed him at once. 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. Son of a bitch son of a bitch, as Garrett took clear aim and blew him out.Garrett picked him up, the head broken in two, took him back upstairs into the hotel room. Mason stretched out a blanket neat in the corner. Garrett placed Tom O’Folliard down, broke open Tom’s rifle, took the remaining shells and placed them by him. They had to wait till morning now. They continued their poker game till six a.m. Then remembered they hadnt done anything about Wild. So the four of them went out, brought Wild into the room. At eight in the morning Garrett buried Tom O’Folliard. He had known him quite well. Then he went to the train station, put Azariah F. Wild on ice and sent him back to Washington.*In Boot Hill there are over 400 graves. It takes the space of 7 acres. There is an elaborate gate but the path keeps to no main route for it tangles like branches of a tree among the gravestones.300 of the dead in Boot Hill died violently200 by guns, over 50 by knivessome were pushed under trains–a popular and overlooked form of murder in the west.Some from brain haemorrhages resulting from bar fightsat least 10 killed in barbed wire.In Boot Hill there are only 2 graves that belong to womenand they are the only known suicides in that graveyard*The others, I know, did not see the wounds appearing in the sky, in the air. Sometimes a normal forehead in front of me leaked brain gases. Once a nose clogged right before me, a lock of skin formed over the nostrils, and the shocked face had to start breathing through mouth, but then the moustache bound itself in the lower teeth and he began to gasp loud the hah! hah! going strong–churned onto the floor, collapsed out, seeming in the end to be breathing out of his eye–tiny needle jets of air reaching into the throat. I told no one. If Angela D. had been with me then, not even her; not Sallie, John, Charlie, or Pat. In the end the only thing that never changed, never became deformed, were animals.*Mmmmmmmm mm thinkingmoving across the world on horsesbody split at the edge of their necksneck sweat eating at my jeansmoving across the world on horsesso if I had a newsman’s brain I’d saywell some morals are physicalmust be clear and openlike diagram of watch or starone must eliminate muchthat is one turns when the bullet leaves youwalk off see none of the thrashingthe very eyes welling up like bad drainsbelieving then the moral of newspapers or gunwhere bodies are mindless as paper flowers you dont feedor give to drinkthat is why I can watch the stomach of clocksshift their wheels and pins into each otherand emerge living, for hours

Bookclub Guide

1. Ondaatje subtitled this book “Left Handed Poems.” The real Billy was not left-handed, though a century of mythology has described him as such. What do you think was the appeal of left-handedness to the mythology? Does Billy’s left hand have extra significance in this book? In what other ways does Ondaatje play with the “truth” of the mythology surrounding Billy?2. Billy says: “Not a story about me through their eyes then. Find the beginning, the slight silver key to unlock it, to dig it out. Here then is a maze to begin, be in.” (p. 20) What is Ondaatje saying in this passage about the process of reading this book? How did you read it? Did you read it beginning-to-end, or did you find yourself doubling back to earlier pages? Did any of the passages change in meaning for you as you read on?3. Discuss the meaning of the various photographs and drawings in the book. The first page contains an empty black-rimmed frame. What is its significance? The final image, off-centre and dwarfed in the large empty frame, is in fact a photo of Ondaatje himself, as a boy in Ceylon. What do you think Ondaatje is conveying with its presence and placement?4. In Billy’s first narrative in the book, he lists himself as one of “the killed.” (p. 5) How does this statement affect the meaning of the following pages?5. In the credits, Ondaatje states, “With these basic sources I have edited, rephrased, and slightly reworked the originals. But the emotions belong to their authors.” Did you find yourself returning to these credits, to see if what you were reading was a quotation? Were you ever uncertain? How did this affect your experience?6. Discuss the differences and similarities in the personalities of Billy and Garrett, who could be described as flip sides of the same coin. Does Ondaatje’s authorial voice fit into this relationship?7. Compare the attributes of Angela Dickenson and Sallie Chisum, the primary female presences in the book. They each have power over Billy, in different ways. Sallie Chisum was a real person, and narrates some of the passages. Angela D/Dickenson is fictional and voiceless. Is this significant? Why did Ondaatje assign her this name? Say the name “Angela D” aloud. Might there be another reference implied?8. When Billy kills the ailing Ferns the cat (p. 45), the Chisums and even Garrett are impressed. But Angela D is terrified. Why?9. Compare Billy’s description of his meandering voyage with Charlie (p. 20) with the description two pages later of Charlie’s “perfect, incredible straight line” (p. 22) as he walks his last paces into the arms of Garrett. Ondaatje emphasizes the straightness of this line repeatedly. Is there significance to this?10. Certain objects in the book seem to carry with them highly charged associations, for instance birds, rats, dogs, wrists and hands, the sun and planets, flowers, windows, clocks and machinery. Discuss the ways in which these objects are associated with particular ideas. Do the ideas remain hooked to these objects? Do they change?11. What is the significance of John Chisum’s story about Livingstone and the dogs? Consider that Billy shares his real first name Henry (McCarty or Antrim) with the Chisums’ dog. Is this important?12. There are many voices in this book, often overlapping in their very different descriptions of Billy and the events of his life. Could you trust any of them? Did you ever have difficulty distinguishing the voices? How did this impact your experience?13. Do you see a pattern in the choices Ondaatje has made in presenting the story in collage form? When does he use poetry, and when prose? How does one affect the other?14. Consider the passage on pages 76-77, in which Billy describes the horror of feeling his body turned inside-out due to heatstroke. There are many other instances in which the interior of the human body is exposed–do you see similarities in these descriptions? Do they convey an underlying theme?15. Read the passage on p. 105 that begins, “It is now early morning, was a bad night.” Who is speaking? What is the significance of this passage?16. In one of the final passages about Billy, describing his grave, comes the description “his legend a jungle sleep.” (p. 97) What does this phrase mean to you? Consider where Ondaatje spent his childhood. Does this affect the meaning?17. Ondaatje said in an interview that with this book, he was trying to make the film he couldn’t afford to shoot. He did adapt it for theatre. How would you render this book for such media? What would be gained? What lost?18. Often when we encounter violence in a work of literature, we anticipate that there will be some sort of resolution of that violence, some redemption or justice served. Do you think this happens in this book? Why/why not? This book was written at the beginning of the Vietnam war. Do you think this is relevant19. Who are the legendary outlaw figures of today, whose mythology overwhelms their fact? Are there any contemporary Billy the Kids? Why/why not?