One More for the Pantheon
By Ron Hansen
In the literary world, the sympathetic killer walks on hallowed ground. From Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov to Capote’s Perry Smith to O’Connor’s Misfit, the murderer—that ultimate transgressor—makes for rich oats. But studying a killer by fictionalizing his exploits can be like drawing close to a shadow in order to describe it: instead of clarifying the subject, nearness only makes him less graspable. In Ron Hansen’s ninth and latest novel The Kid, the author revels in humanizing his subject while managing, remarkably, to preserve Billy’s fundamentally inscrutable nature.
This novel returns Hansen to his Old West roots, completing what might be considered a trilogy of pulp-western tales that he’s translated into high art. His first novel Desperadoes, from 1979, follows the Dalton Gang, while his second novel, the 1983 The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, hooks the reader from the start with the scene of Jesse James’s initial meeting with Bob Ford, when James’s eventual killer asks him, “Am I too late to wish you Happy Birthday?” In The Kid, Pat Garrett who is, of course, Billy the Kid’s assassin, might’ve been similarly used as a tension-ticking device, but Hansen opts instead for a slower-paced chronological accounting of his subject’s life.
“You’ll want to know about his mother, she being crucial to the Kid’s becomings,” reads the first line, and it strikes the strangely intriguing note of a biographer exhausted with his subject, a tone that persists throughout most of the exposition-heavy first of three parts. Billy’s father is killed in the Civil War when Billy is a toddler, and Widow McCarty eventually settles with her two sons in a small town near Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she marries William Henry Harrison Antrim. Hansen vivifies the story’s workaday framework with reliably sharp character descriptions:
The Kid took after his mother physically, too, with fine, handsome features, tawny blond hair when freshly washed, dead leaf brown when not, and with ever twinkling, canny, mischievous eyes that were blue as Wedgwood and checkered with sunlight. Like his friends, he favored moccasins over shoes and wore his felt hat far back on his head. His aching teeth with the rabbit centrals had never seen a dentist, and he only cleaned them by eating apples.
When consumption strikes his mother, Billy’s tender care reveals the soon-to-be orphan inside the soon-to-be feared outlaw, and her death in his fourteenth year inspires the grief, anger, and self-pity that set him on his pernicious path. We’re told, “There was a lot of Why me? in his rumination. And it was his undoing that in his aloneness and loss he fell in with a wild and vice-laden crowd.” The absent father comes in for a mention, as well: “The Kid had felt fatherless since his vague early memories of New York City, and he forever found himself generating fierce loyalties for confident older men who paid him the least bit of attention.”
Soon enough, the Englishman John Tunstall takes Billy under his wing. Hansen spends a lot of time tracking various alliances, and I longed for him to stick to what he does best: action. That said, one source of delight throughout the novel is Hansen’s stylized language. Almost every paragraph contains some gift of verisimilitude or historicized lingo. In one scene, Billy’s gang-like posse called the Regulators pursue a pair of men who contributed to Tunstall’s murder:
The Regulators crashed their own horses across a pretty fly-fishing river and gave chase through open but jagged country, the pursued in a hot gallop and twisting in their jolting saddles to shoot backward, hitting nothing but earth and sky, then having to frantically reload on the run. The Regulators sent a fusillade of gunfire at them, too, but the leaps and lunges of their horses also jostled their aims into ever-miss.
In another gun battle a few pages later: “Then Fred Waite helped Billy up, and he hobbled back to their horses in the corral as the others retreated with them, their guns blazing at nothing much, a stray bullet skewering Juan Batista Wilson’s buttocks as he hoed his onion patch on a hillside.” And yet one more:
They congregated on a mesa, and each squatted with his soft horse’s head next to his own, reins in hand just in case there were soldier pursuers. A few partook of some kitchen rye. His heart still hectic with the could-haves of the murderous night, the Kid even smoked one of Fred Waite’s machine-made cigarettes just to see if it would calm his jangling nerves.
If crackling language isn’t enough, there’s Hansen’s research. In the acknowledgments, although Hansen notes that he has “streamlined” the history and “eliminated some characters to spare the reader,” his contract with the reader is pretty clear: he’s determined to “get it right,” as he states. This accords with what I know of Hansen’s methods: in 2012 I heard him tell a group of historical novelists in Chicago that once you’ve done enough research on your subject you begin to correct the so-called experts, then you’re ready to write.
As for eliminating characters, he might’ve eliminated a few more without harm. The first four chapters each spends time building a minor character, then flashes forward to summarize that character’s death. The second and third chapters end, respectively:
In 1922 at the age of eighty, William Henry Harrison Antrim would die in Adelaide, California, in the home of his niece. At his funeral service, he was remembered as a pious and highly regarded gentleman.
And it was not until 1920 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that John Mackie died peacefully at the age of seventy-two.
Such to-and-fro’ing drags on the book’s early momentum, as does the attempt to capture the intricacies of the Lincoln County War. A list of 35 “Major Characters” in the book’s fore, offering a short biography of each, forecasts the daunting task of tracking so many people and their alliances.
At times Hansen awkwardly pauses to translate foreign-language phrases—primarily Spanish, which, we’re told, the Kid spoke fluently. When the eighteen-year-old Manuela, despite living with Charlie Bowdre, shows the Kid her breasts as a birthday gift, the text reads, “Smiling, he said ‘Precioso!’ Beautiful!” Such handholding reaches a pointless height in a scene with a Polish immigrant whose “‘Dzifôkujfô’” is translated “Thank you.” That the Old West was a mishmash of languages and cultures is true enough without a condescending object lesson.
One reliably strong feature of Hansen’s four decades of prose is his facility with sensory detail. Whether we’re following Jesse James in minutest detail, watching the failed painter Adolph Hitler turn to politics in Hitler’s Niece, or witnessing, in the short story “Wickedness,” the up-close horror caused by a 19th century Nebraska snowstorm, Hansen excels at rendering what looms large and famous (or, more commonly, infamous) not small, but intimate. Similarly, in The Kid, Hansen’s gift for magnifying the personal is on display, and this inexorably draws us into life on the lam. When the Kid holes up with fellow Regulators and guests in Alex McSween’s house in Lincoln, New Mexico, the men aligned against them set fire to the property:
The fire’s fierce appetite shifted southward to the McSween quarters, and with temperatures nearing a thousand degrees, the hallway wallpaper curled, then blackened, then chafed into flying ash. The adobe bricks burned like charcoal. The houseguests backed up from room to room to avoid the heat and lung-racking smoke, and were soon crowded into the front parlor, their clothing drenched in sweat, handkerchiefs and dish towels held over their noses and mouths to inefficiently filter out the fouled air.
And when the Kid and his gang, which includes Dave Rudabaugh, hunker down inside a “forage shelter fluffily fringed with snow,” we read:
Rudabaugh removed from his saddlebags two round loaves of sourdough bread that he’d stolen […], and in a spasm of selflessness shared them with the gang while Charlie Bowdre uncorked an unlabeled bottle of homemade rotgut that seemed to have been flavored with molasses to brown it and had the head of a rattlesnake wobbling in the bottom.
Such fine brush strokes bring history close at the same time they elevate it to a mystical, mythical beyond. The time of western outlaws sipping rattlesnake rotgut has inaccessibly passed, yet it doesn’t feel like it here, and we’re invited for a moment to join.
Although The Kid never achieves the surging profluence of Assassination, the story gains momentum as Pat Garrett begins to hunt Billy about two-thirds of the way through. At one point, exhausted with outlawry and all of twenty years old, the Kid says to a fellow bandito, “I’m frazzled.” We feel the Kid’s essential stuckness, yet after he’s arrested and effects an escape by killing a sympathetic guard, we guiltily marvel at and also feel his urge toward freedom—a freedom, of course, that will only loose him back into lawlessness—as he explains, “I didn’t want to hurt you, Jim. I’m only trying to save my life.” An ineffable contradiction, these twin sympathies—away from and toward criminality; fatigued with life yet yearning for more of it—that emanate from the heart of this bifurcated killer.
That inscrutability is meant to incite something like spiritual yearning in the reader, which is at the center of Hansen’s project. Near the book’s end, a sweetheart named Paulita Maxwell, in rejecting the Kid, lectures him. If you imagine her speaking to God, her monologue makes an interesting connection to the human condition—one, I would wager, Hansen himself is inviting us to make:
Are you even aware of how hot and cold you are? How you seduce and then withdraw, tantalize and then retreat? Even with men you’re like that. You’re a mystery to people, you keep us off-balance and guessing. We have to presume what you’re thinking or feeling. And instead of being frustrated we find ourselves fascinated, and we make things up about you out of our own hopes and needs and all the dangerous things we’re afraid to do.
We’re surrounded by mythical figures. It’s only natural to want to demystify them—and our longing to know and not know the essence of this larger-than-life gunslinger, this loving child fashioned by the Old West into a killer, is vividly rendered in The Kid. Hansen has given us one more version of a western-outlaw god to add to our pantheon.
Jeff P. Jones’s debut novel is Love Give Us One Death: Bonnie and Clyde in the Last Days.