'The Kid': Sensitive, sympathetic portrait of a Western outlaw

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The Kid
By Ron Hansen
Scribner. 301 pp. $26.

Reviewed by Kevin Grauke

Quick: Name three gunfighters of the Wild West. Whom did you name third? Wild Bill Hickok? Doc Holliday? Regardless of your third choice, the first two names to come to you were likely Jesse James and Billy the Kid. And why wouldn't they be? Who else from that era still fascinates us more than these two brutal figures? (As evidence, take the price paid for the only authenticated photograph of Billy the Kid: $2.3 million, in 2011). But how much do any of us really know about either of them beyond their status as figureheads of American rebelliousness?

In The Kid, Ron Hansen aims to both explore and explode the myth of the man born Henry McCarty (not William H. Bonney, as is commonly believed - that was an alias adopted later), and no fiction writer is more qualified to take on this task. After all, Hansen is the author of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (1983), a gem of a novel that deserves to be considered a classic of historical western fiction - much more so than, say, Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove. (Twenty-four years later, Hansen's work was made into a fine film by Andrew Dominik starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck.)

With The Kid, Hansen clearly aims to rely on the same design used for Assassination, creating a tapestry of lyrical description, indelible images of both beauty and cruelty, and details gleaned from assiduous research.

Gradually, a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of Billy emerges. Here, he's not the bloodthirsty killer he has typically been cast to be; here, he's a kid first. Orphaned at 14, he's forced to do whatever it takes to survive, and soon enough, that includes stealing horses and falling under the sway of outlaws. His first killing is done in self-defense. Many jailbreaks follow, as do many gunfights, several of which stem from his desire for revenge after the murder of his employer, an erudite English rancher whom he much admired.

Throughout, while the largely inaccurate legend of his ruthlessness grows, he demonstrates himself to be sensitive as well as well-spoken - not only in Hansen's imagination, but also in the letters Billy wrote to others, from which Hansen quotes occasionally, to great effect.

Nevertheless, though Hansen's corrective portrait is illuminating, the novel itself, in the end, falters. Bogged down by too much historically accurate but extraneous matter, The Kid frequently sacrifices narrative momentum for the sake of pursuing seemingly every possible tangent along the way. Though it is vaguely interesting, for example, that because Billy's brother died poor and alone at 76, his body was donated to a medical school for dissection, such minutiae, often presented as too-lengthy asides, eventually grow wearisome, especially as Billy's internal life is never investigated - or created, more accurately - to any considerable depth.

Inexorably, we follow along as he moves closer to his fatal encounter with Pat Garrett, but it's hard to care all that much, which is a shame.

Kevin Grauke is associate professor of English at La Salle University.