Tuesday, February 16, 2010

she's the devil in disguise

Okay, so I finished The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, which I'm not going to summarize in the traditional way because I don't have the next thousand years free to present the material in a logical, orderly way. And to do so would be a tragic missing of the point; this book is pretty much As I Lay Dying: The Western, which means that I think it's awesome.

As I Lay Dying's primary narrative device - letting many characters describe one central sequence of events in their own voices to provide a fuller sense of the story - is put to work here, as Billy the Kid is examined from many different sources (himself, his friends, his enemies, dime novels, newspaper interviews) and narrative techniques (prose, free verse poetry, old photographs, etc.). This collage effect is a response to the traditional Western, and even grim spaghetti westerns, in that it is an abstract display of what was a very complex time period. Huge changes in industry, technology, travel, communication, population shifts, and the political character of the nation were underway in the Frontier period, and neither the cartoonish John Wayne or inhospitably stark Sergio Leone depictions really capture it - they're too narrow in scope. What this book tries to do is widen that narrative lens, and I think it succeeds.

The central character, Billy the Kid, is cast as a lover and an observer, while still maintaining the traditional exterior of a violent criminal. His ruminations on the stars and their representation of the universe's fragile working order, for example, is poetic and astute, but he remains level-headed and almost cavalier about gunfights and their aftermath, even the deaths of his friends, without betraying his intellectual sensibilities. This is largely achieved by the writing, which is grounded well enough in solid detail that it can riff in and out of experimental tangents without losing readers in the dust.

Since I'm really just jumping from thought to thought here, I'll go ahead and stop, but this is a damn good book. Read it if you haven't already. I'd like to read more from this author when I have the time.

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