The VintageAnchor Twitter’s backlist title of the day linked to an LA Times review of the new edition of Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, which was released last month. Although warm, Richard Rayner’s review doesn’t approach the heights of an essay that ran in the New York Times Book Review when the novel was first released.
On November 17, 1974, Karyl Roosevelt reviewed the novel alongside Country Cousins, a sex farce by Michael Brownstein, and likened the transition from the latter to the former to jumping from a moving freight train. Strangely, she meant this is a compliment to both books: Brownstein’s has all the excitement of a locamotive, and Ondaatje’s the still beauty of the territory around it.
But it is through Billy’s (or Mr. Ondaatje’s) special sensitivity to light and color, movement and sound, that the deserts of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico begin to breathe hotly in our imaginations. The slow, sensuous unraveling of these violent lives is filtered through the monochromatic desert light…. Only his guns retain a hard edge, metallic and ever-present, never far from his “beautiful fingers.”
Despite the violence of Billy’s world—Roosevelt calls the stories “lurid, nasty, death-filled,”—Ondaatje’s writing is too delicate to succumb to cliches of the hard-boiled. Like last year’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which used golden light and Brad Pitt to humanize the James gang, Ondaatje, who would go on to a different desert in 1992’s The English Patient, makes a poet out of Billy Bonney. If the old west was really this beautiful, it’s easy to see him that way.