To guys of a certain age, Billy the Kid is still a legendary figure because, at one time or the other, almost all of us strapped on our six-shooters and pretended to be him. He looked so cool in western movies and television shows that we didn’t care that he was really one of life’s bad guys. We just wanted to be him.
John Vernon’s Lucky Billy, although a fictional account, is a much more realistic version of the life and times of Billy Bonney than the ones told in those old movies and TV shows. It deals primarily with Billy’s days as a New Mexico Regulator in the Lincoln County War of 1878, a power struggle between wealthy Irish ranchers and Englishman John Tunstall who operated a large general store in the county. The conflict turned violent soon enough and John Tunstall was murdered by a posse loyal to the ranchers. Billy, who had actually started out working as a hired gun for the Irish ranchers who dominated the area before Tunstall’s arrival there, had by the time of Tunstall’s murder sworn his loyalty to Tunstall and, as a Regulator, he desperately wanted to avenge the murder of his friend.
The Lincoln County War was a messy affair by any standard upon which it can be retrospectively judged. It was not easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys, and both sides seemed more than willing to shoot first and ask questions later. Local law enforcement was corrupt enough not to be trusted, and even the army troops stationed in Lincoln County threw their weight behind the ranchers and watched as what was left of the Tunstall group was routed in a battle in which the home they were hiding in was set afire. Billy Bonney killed several people during the various confrontations and his reputation is largely based on what happened in New Mexico.
Billy the Kid was never to leave New Mexico and, in fact, died there when he was gunned down without warning by Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881. Garrett himself was to meet his own end at the hands of a murderer in 1908.
Lucky Billy is not an easy book to read because of the way that author John Vernon has cobbled together his story by telling it from several points-of-view and by jumping backward and forward in time from one chapter to the next. Vernon also reproduces letters and legal documents (based on actual documents) that are often difficult to follow and he seems prone to over-long descriptive passages that add little to his story or its atmosphere.
I found Lucky Billy to be a difficult book to read, at times, because I had such a hard time getting into its rhythm, that state of mind that allows the reader to absorb and enjoy a book at an almost effortless pace. That never really happened for me with this one. Vernon, on the other hand, does do a fine job when it comes to the “action scenes” in Lucky Billy, describing them in a vivid and exciting way that had me racing from one page to the next to see who would survive the violence. I do have mixed feelings about the last few pages of the book, in which Vernon describes that final encounter between Garrett and the Kid, because of a bit of bizarre behavior that Vernon attributes to Garrett after Billy has been stripped to be prepared for his coffin. So as not to spoil the effect of that particular scene, I will only say that I found the behavior to be both jarring and disturbing and, more importantly, unnecessary.
Rated at: 3.0