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IN BRIEF

Fiction

July 14, 1996|CHRIS GOODRICH

THE COLLECTED WORKS OF BILLY THE KID by Michael Ondaatje (Vintage International: $10 paper, 105 pp.). William Bonney first killed a man, it's said, at the age of 12; by the time he was shot dead himself nine years later, by Sheriff Pat Garrett, he had killed at least 26 more. "Blood a necklace on me all my life," acknowledges Billy the Kid in this fictional montage, a work first published in 1970 by Booker Prize-winning writer (for "The English Patient") Michael Ondaatje.

More prose-poem than novella, "The Collected Works of Billy the Kid" is a tour de force, its subject not mayhem and corruption but perspective and history. Ondaatje does give Billy the chance to explain himself--"Everybody was shooting," he tells a reporter to justify his killing a sheriff during an 1870s New Mexico cattle war--but the writer is more interested in Billy's private side. On his dying pal Charlie Bowdre: "face changing like fast sunshine"; on Garrett: "assassins/come to chaos neutral"; on his last birthday: "angry weather in my head, too."

Ondaatje can be accused of glamorizing criminal life--Garrett is also described as an "academic murderer"--but at bottom he's intent on showing that the past may be best appreciated through a kaleidoscope. To borrow from an old saying, where you stand depends not only on where you sit but where you've been and what you've seen.

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