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Professor's historical novel brings new life to a legend

By : Eric Coker

John Vernon was faced with a challenge when starting to write a historical novel about Old West icon Billy the Kid.

“One problem I did have was that most people have a vague notion that Billy the Kid did die young and was shot by Pat Garrett,” said Vernon, a distinguished professor of English. “How do I write a novel in which the end is known?”

The answer can be found in the title of the book released in November by Houghton-Mifflin: Lucky Billy.

In the book, Vernon humanizes a figure often regarded as a ruthless renegade by placing him against the backdrop of the Lincoln County War of the late 1870s in New Mexico. Readers are able to have mixed emotions for the outlaw formerly known as  Henry McCarty, William Bonney and Kid Antrim: they see a tragic figure caught up in a conflict that spirals out of control; find sympathy for a shattered early family life; and have disgust for Billy’s hell-bent revenge killings.

Billy the Kid’s “luck” is also subject to interpretation. Characters in the book consider Billy lucky to be able to take matters into his own hands. Readers see Billy continually get out of gun battles, jail breaks and house fires unscathed — and not necessarily because of his legendary outlaw skills.

“In the most superficial sense, he is lucky because he escapes from death,” Vernon said. “And many times it did happen by luck.”

Billy’s luck does finally end in 1881 at the hands of Sheriff Pat Garrett. Vernon tells the story of Billy’s death through Garrett’s voice. It’s one of several times in the book that Vernon effectively shifts the point of view. He also uses a “scrambled chronology,” as the book jumps back and forth from Billy’s escape from jail in 1881 to the origins of his involvement in the Lincoln County War. Vernon said he used these methods to “break up a known story so some of the suspense comes from the reader putting it together.”

Vernon said he first had the idea for the novel after reading an essay in The New Yorker by Finton O’Toole in 1998 about separating Billy the Kid’s legend from the facts.

In the fall of 2004, Vernon spent a week researching some of the Old West places in New Mexico, such as Lincoln. A Newman Travel Grant from the English Department helped Vernon get a feel for the area.

“I love stories embedded in the Western landscape,” he said. “New Mexico hasn’t changed much since the 1870s and 1880s. Lincoln is still very much the same. Many places in the West have become ‘condo-ized’ to death. But that place is so magical. It’s still cattle country with ranchers and small towns.”

Vernon’s research and the historical records gave him a “scaffolding,” he said, and enabled him to make “an imaginable leap” to a novel. The book went through four or five drafts over the next three years before being delivered to the publisher.

Another subject that Vernon had to research extensively was guns. There’s plenty of death in Lucky Billy, as Vernon tries to convey the reality and horror of Old West violence that sometimes is not captured by Hollywood.

“In some ways, I’m trespassing on pulp fiction and pulp movies,” he said. “I wanted to make art of pulp.”

Vernon counters the violence by examining Billy’s “public vs. private self.” He includes chapters in which Billy is alone, contemplating his next move. Vernon also uses Garrett and one of Billy’s sidekicks, Fred Waite, as foils. The two were Vernon’s favorite supporting characters.

“Billy the Kid is violent, reckless, cruel, likeable and funny,” he said. “He’s like a bundle of impulsiveness. I wanted to create Fred Waite and Pat Garrett as more controlled and skeptical. These two, in the process of writing, became touchstones of people I really liked and wanted to return to.”

Lucky Billy was featured as the lead review in the Nov. 30 New York Times Book Review and was an “Editor’s Choice” a week later.

“The placement of (the review) was as important as anything the reviewer said,” Vernon said. “Hopefully, that will help the book. It’s tough to publish a book in a severe recession. I don’t know how sales are going and I’m usually the last to know.”

Vernon’s next book, a novel set in the Middle Ages, is already complete. He is now working on a novel set in the 19th century West in the mining community of Georgetown, Colo., that centers on the disappearance of a child who wanders into the mountains.

Vernon, who has been at Binghamton since 1971 and now lives in Estes Park, Colo., near Rocky Mountain National Park, will return to the University for the spring semester to teach an advanced fiction workshop for undergraduates and a novel workshop for graduate students. He is planning to do some readings on campus and hopes to promote and discuss Lucky Billy at local bookstores.

“I want the readers to have a ground-floor experience of history, like they are there with the characters,” he said of Lucky Billy. “I want the readers to feel like they’ve been in that landscape. And I want the readers to be moved by Billy the Kid, but disturbed at the same time.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08