Michael Wallis, Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride (W.W. Norton, 2007) 288 pp.
Although he has been dead for over 100 years Billy the Kid is still a popular subject in all forms of popular culture. From films to books to plays, he continues to be an object of myth and legend.
Billy the Kid: the Endless Ride by Michael Wallis provides a fresh look at the life and legend of Henry William Antrim. While the book is fairly traditional in its approach, Wallis does engage in some revisionism when attempting to prove the heroism of the Kid.
Most of what we think we know about Billy the Kid is only legend rooted in half-truth. In many ways, he has become important, not because of the things he did, but because of a varying memories of him. He looms on the edge of our modern society, a man whose violence appalls, yet also appeals to us. We are at once disgusted by his (alleged) murderous ways, yet we cheer his roughish independence. To a certain extent, Billy the Kid embodies what America has become these past one hundred years.
There is no consensus regarding much of Billy’s life. Where was he born? Who was his father? How many men did he actually kill? All of these questions, and more, are so shrouded in legend that it is almost impossible to root out the truth. He was the son of Irish kings; no, his father was an officer in the Union army. He killed a hundred men; no, he only killed two. He was killed by Pat Garret; no, he escaped to live in Mexico. Wallis attempts to answer these questions by tracing the sources as far back as he can go in order to reconstruct the Kid’s life. Often, the reader is left with varying accounts and the divergent memories of those who were present. The reader is left to decide who to believe.
Wallis proposes a new understanding of the Kid. He does not sugarcoat him, or make him out to be what he is not; rather, Wallis attempts to prove the Kid was never who we thought him to be.
There is a popular misconception that Billy the Kid was a wild bandit who killed at every turn. Wallis proves that only two murders can be pinned directly to him, and even those could be justified in the rugged environment he lived in.
This is where Wallis excels, in illuminating the rough and often violent life in the late 19th century west. The streets come alive in the pages, the dust almost making the reader cough as Billy’s family moves from Kansas to the Southwest. Mere facts and first-hand accounts don’t litter these pages; Wallis opens up a world that a has been plagued by sensational journalism since the beginning. The reader understands that world, understands the motivations behind the violence, while never approving of it.
This is not to say, however, that the book is without flaws. Certainly, Wallis tends to be over poetic at times and often sacrifices internal coherence for the sake of drama. He paints the world of Dodge City, where Billy’s mother worked as a laundress, as an idyllic American dream, only to contradict himself later when describing the woman’s terrible fight with tuberculosis. He also brings up the idea of exploring the Kid as a legendary figure among Hispanics, but does nothing beyond bringing it up. This is an idea worth exploring, perhaps more so than another anglo-centric biography.
Taken as a whole, Billy the Kid: the Endless Ride is a good book, well worth reading by any fan of western American history. It may not be the definitive biography, mainly because it is written at the popular and not academic level, but it is perhaps the most well written book on Henry Antrim. Wallis writes with clarity, avoiding any offensive bias, and admirably achieves his goal of writing a revisionist biography. I highly recommend it.