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Billy the Kid: The Endless RideBy Michael WallisW.W. Norton, 352 pages, $25.95
In the 126 years since his death, Billy the Kid has never stopped inspiring writers, including Larry McMurtry, Michael Ondaatje, and Gore Vidal. Aaron Copland wrote a ballet about him, and he’s been the subject of more than 300 films. Arguably no other figure in American lore has generated so much fiction and fancy, but with Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride he now has a definitive biography. Michael Wallis pursues the Kid’s life and legend as doggedly as Pat Garrett once chased the real Billy, though with drastically different results: Garrett ended up killing Billy while Wallis becomes the first biographer to really bring him to life. It’s a tough job, since facts regarding William Henry Harrison Antrim’s life are sparse. His mother, Catherine, “a jolly Irish lady, full of life” according to one acquaintance, died of tuberculosis when Billy was 14. He eventually drifted to Lincoln County, N.M., at the time the largest county in any U.S. state or territory, with a homicide rate 47 times higher than the national average. Billy got mixed up in Lincoln County’s political and economic disputes, avenged the killings of his pals, and was finally killed himself in 1881, at 21 years old. Everything else concerning his life is in dispute, but Wallis (author of Route 66, The Real Wild West, and Pretty Boy: The Life and Times of Charles Arthur Floyd) ably fills in some of Billy’s background. Witnesses claim that he “was a good boy, maybe a little…mischievous at times,” that he was of slight build but blessed with great energy and sharp reflexes, that he was courteous to ladies, and that “his eyes were full of fun”—clearly his mother’s Irish lad. He may have even recited a little poetry. Gradually, through Wallis’ deft brushstrokes, an image of the Kid begins to take shape. Dime novels, he writes, particularly appealed to “working class men and boys” such as Billy and his brothers, who were “eager to read about the perils of frontier life.…[T]he pulps featured brigands, renegades, and rogues and transformed them into heroic criminals, driven to their lawless ways by social injustice and the need to defy an oppressive and corrupt establishment.” Billy may well have been influenced by the pulp fiction of his time, and, in turn, such literature may have colored his contemporaries’ impressions of him. Wallis finds little evidence for the psychotic killer image depicted in countless fantasies; rather, the Kid became a “convenient target for the Santa Fe Ring and the Dolan Faction,” racketeers who murdered his friends. That Billy the Kid, under any name, has survived in cultural memory for so long is due in part to his popularity with Hispanics in Lincoln County: “To them, he was not a ruthless killer but he was their El Chivato, their little Billy, a champion of the poor and oppressed.” Wallis closes by saying that the Kid’s “ride across our popular imagination will never end,” and that’s true as long as his book remains in print.