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Take a wild and rich ride with the Kid

The storied outlaw comes to life with historical asides and details.

By WILLIAM MCKEEN
Published May 6, 2007


Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride

By Michael Wallis

W.W. Norton, 329 pages, $25.95

For starters, his name was Henry, not Billy.

If you've been patting yourself on the back because you know Billy the Kid's "real" name was William H. Bonney, you've got a lot to learn.

Billy the Kid has been a fixture of American popular culture for nearly 130 years. In that time, there's been more hype about him than Brangelina and Bennifer combined, cubed and multiplied by a thousand. And so much of it is wrong.

So here comes Michael Wallis to set us straight with Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride, a wonderful did-you-know-this sort of book that will make you call your buddies to share what you learned.

Wallis is a road scholar, author of Route 66: The Mother Road and the upcoming Lincoln Highway, and the voice of the sheriff in Disney-Pixar's Cars. He's one of those prolific writers who seems to know a lot about everything, and the tone of Billy the Kid is authoritative and conversational. The book is full of fascinating asides woven expertly into the thin narrative of the outlaw's life. There are few hard facts and just that one arresting image of the boy, the one that peers out from the dust jacket. Yet Wallis steeps us in the dirty details of life in the West.

Wallis doesn't stray from the facts of the Kid's life, but does offer theories, many of which turn into the long historical - and sometimes comical - asides that give the book its richness. The Kid who emerges isn't a moronic sociopath, as some portrayals have made him out to be. To Wallis, he was more of a Robin Hood character - certainly to the Hispanic citizens of New Mexico, who elevated him to folk-hero status.

The Kid, while in captivity near the end of his short life, told a reporter, "I don't blame you for writing of me as you have." He could have been speaking to all those who would spin myths from the slender thread of his life story. All he wanted, he said, was that the truth be told. In Wallis, the Kid has found a writer to respect his wishes.

William McKeen teaches journalism at the University of Florida.