A Legendary Gunslinger Comes of Age in Ron Hansen’s ‘The Kid’

Lee Polevoi


The Kid

By Ron Hansen


320 pgs


With his first two novels, Desperadoes (1979) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (1983), Ron Hansen almost singlehandedly revived the “literary western”—a concept that had mostly laid dormant since Thomas Berger’s classic Little Big Man and True Grit by Charles Portis, both published in the ‘60s.


In these two beautifully structured novels, Hansen introduced readers to a cavalcade of gunslingers in beguiling language that was both immediate and “of the era.” Together, they represent a notable literary feat, enhanced further by the adaptation of his second novel, starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck—one of the most effective transitions from novel to film in recent memory.


Now Hansen completes his “outlaw trilogy” with publication of The Kid, about William Henry Carty, aka William H. Bonney, but infamous throughout history as Billy the Kid. The outlaw came from a broken home, endured many hardships throughout his life and, as befits a legend, died young. Hansen’s treatment is sympathetic, without condoning the Kid’s wanton, murderous ways. What he does with impressive authority is place the Kid’s actions against the broader context of the Lincoln County war in the New Mexico territory, just part of the anarchic West, c. 1879.


The descriptions of gunplay remain as flamboyant and gut-wrenching as at the beginning of Hansen’s literary career. During a fierce exchange of gunfire, one of the Kid’s allies is shot in the chest and the “force of it slammed him into a fall from his horse, and he was as quiet on the earth as a heap of coats.”


And later, in an equally violent incident:


“Sheriff Brady stepped off the porch, yelling, ‘I’ll be right there!” Then for some reason he glanced down the alley beside the store to a high gate of upright planks hiding a view into Tunstall’s corral. And suddenly the gate swung open and a gang of men stood up and raised their rifles and fired. Shots hit his gut and wrist and spun him into a fall on the street. Sitting there in a daze, he said, ‘Oh, Lord,’ and as if recognizing he was late for the train, he struggled to get up, only to be hit with another volley of gunfire, which hammered his left side and back and tore a chunk off of his skull.”



There are striking differences between The Kid and Hansen’s earlier westerns. In The Assassination of Jesse James, he dives deep into the souls of the famous protagonist and his acolyte (and later assassin). The book’s rhythms are at once leisurely and elegiac, as if Hansen himself began to channel Jesse James in ways that had never been successfully attempted before.


The Kid, by contrast, might best be described as a documentary novel. Young Billy Honney is at its center, but readers come at him from outside. Also, dozens of supporting characters populate the story, many introduced with pocket summaries (“Lieutenant Colonel Nathan A.M. Dudley was a monocled, fifty-three-year-old bachelor and alcoholic with a gray whisk broom of a mustache and a Prussian officer’s fierce and fixed ideas”), and after awhile, it’s not always clear who’s with the Kid and who’s against him.


Throughout The Kid, the author’s depth of research and love of the genre shine through. This eventful novel builds on the extraordinary achievement of his first two westerns and Hansen can rightfully claim this lawless territory as his own.


At one point, the Kid and his pal Harry Brewer are collecting “delinquent horses and mules” and a moment of quiet reflection ensues:


“The frozen fescue grass crackled under the hooves of the Kid’s horse. His Colorado saddle and doghouse stirrups creaked whenever he shifted his weight. Off in the distance there were galleons of shock-white cumulus clouds gathering in the wide sky’s cerulean harbor, and their azure shadows floated over the flatlands. Billy surprised himself by saying, ‘I love it here. I’ll never leave.’”


Fans of Ron Hansen’s work won’t want to leave, either.


Author Bio:


Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, has completed a new novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash.


For Highbrow Magazine

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