Acclaimed novel traces life of Billy the Kid


BINGHAMTON, NY -- In his latest historical novel, Binghamton University faculty member John Vernon has given new life to Old West icon Billy the Kid, humanizing a figure often regarded as a ruthless renegade.  

 In Lucky Billy, Vernon begins at a pivotal point in Billy the Kid’s life: the period around the chaotic Lincoln County War of the late 1870s in New Mexico, which sealed his fate as an outlaw. Against a backdrop of gun fights and womanizing, Vernon has mixed emotions about the short-lived outlaw, who was caught in a conflict that spiraled out of control and had to keep killing in order to survive, but whose murders were ruthless.

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

The ‘luck’ as Vernon suggests in the title of the novel is subject to interpretation. Characters in the book consider Billy lucky to be able to take matters into his own hands. Billy is able to survive gun battles, escape from jail and flee burning houses.

“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 ends in 1881 at the hands of Sheriff Pat Garrett. Vernon tells the story of Billy’s death in Garrett’s voice. It’s one of several times in the book that Vernon 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 Fintan O’Toole in 1998 about separating Billy the Kid’s legend from the facts. He later spent a week researching some of the Old West places in New Mexico, such as Lincoln to get a ‘feel’ for the historic settings.

“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. Still, this isn't a 'western' in the usual sense. My goal was to make art out of pulp.

Released by Houghton Mifflin, Lucky Billy has been featured as the lead review in the Nov. 30 New York Times Book Review and was an “Editor’s Choice” a week later. It was recently named by the Seattle Times as one of the top 10 fiction books of 2008 and recognized as the 2008 Southwest Book of the Year by the Arizona Historical Society and Tucson Public Libraries.

Last Updated: 9/17/13