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Lucky Billy

Lucky Billy

by John Vernon

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A myth-busting novel about America’s most infamous and beloved outlaw, Billy the Kid, from a critically acclaimed historical novelist

According to legend, Billy the Kid killed twenty-one men, one for every year of his short life; stole from wealthy cattle barons to give to the poor; and wooed just about every senorita in the American Southwest.


A myth-busting novel about America’s most infamous and beloved outlaw, Billy the Kid, from a critically acclaimed historical novelist

According to legend, Billy the Kid killed twenty-one men, one for every year of his short life; stole from wealthy cattle barons to give to the poor; and wooed just about every senorita in the American Southwest.
In Lucky Billy, John Vernon digs deeply into the historical record to find a truth more remarkable than the legend, and draws a fresh, nuanced portrait of this outlaw’s dramatic and violent life.

Billy the Kid met his celebrated end at the hands of Pat Garrett, his one-time carousing partner turned sheriff, who tracked Billy down after the jail break that made him famous. In Vernon’s telling, the crucial event of Billy’s life was the Lincoln County War, a conflict between a ring of Irishmen in control of Lincoln, New Mexico, and a newcomer from England, John Tunstall, who wanted to break their grip on the town. Billy signed on with Tunstall. The conflict spun out of control with Tunstall’s murder, and in a series of revenge killings, an obscure hired gunman called Kid Antrim became Billy the Kid.

Besides a full complement of gunfights, jail breaks, and bawdy behavior, Lucky Billy is a provocative picture of the West at a critical juncture between old and new. It is also a portrait of an American icon made human, caught in the middle, more lost than brave, more nadve than principled, more of an accidental survivor than simply the cold-blooded killer of American myth.

Editorial Reviews

Ben Macintyre
Vernon has taken what is known and filled the wide gaps with fiction. The result is a little like an early black-and-white western film: the plot jerks about, the picture wobbles, unfocused characters come and go, often without explanation, and the slow-motion gunplay seems amateurish. But all of this adds to the novel's credibility. There was nothing Hollywood slick about Billy the Kid's short life and squalid death…Billy the Kid was never his own man. Vernon's Billy reflects that "there's plenty of Billies," then adds, "I'm the made-up one." The real Billy the Kid exists only in snapshot. He was invented and reinvented, by himself and others, during his lifetime and after. No one ever caught him, but this novel comes close.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Billy the Kid rides again in this literary retelling of his legendary and bloody career. The story begins with his bold escape from the Lincoln, N.Mex., jail in April 1881, then flashes back to his capture by former friend Sheriff Pat Garrett. The narrative travels back and forth between Billy's final escape and his earlier role in the Lincoln County war. Although the novel touches on familiar incidents in Billy's life, it also hews close to historical research in showing how the war for control of Lincoln County between the Murphy-Dolan Irish merchant ring and upstart English rancher/merchant John Tunstall was a continuation of Anglo-Irish enmity. After Tunstall is murdered, Billy goes gunning for members of the Irish ring. A pardon from New Mexico territorial governor Gen. Lew Wallace comes to naught, and the familiar story grinds to its inevitable end. Although Doyle makes dramatic use of research into Anglo-Irish tensions in the Old West, the Billy presented here is too one-dimensional to make us understand why his legend continues to hold sway in the popular imagination 127 years after his death. (Nov.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

"The lawlessness of the period, in which criminality can mean simply being on the wrong side of corrupt officials, is evoked to perfection, scenes of unremitting brutality playing out against the harsh beauty and shifting colors of the landscape."

Denver Post

"Using careful research as his base, Vernon steps beyond the legend to reveal a Billy the Kid who is at once transparent and puzzling...An intriguing new look at an American legend that took shape in a time of challenging and often dangerous change."

Rocky Mountain News

"He succeeds admirably by focusing on the psychologies of billy, especially, and the men around him...Vernon has created a convincing version of the familiar story, one which looks beneath the dramatic events to portray the humanity that even Billy shares, A-."

Seattle Times

"Vernon's powers of description are formidable...Here's a book that casts fresh, disorienting light on a figure and an era lost in the haze of legend."

American Cowboy

"[Lucky Billy] is an entertaining, humanized portrait of The Kid as we've rarely seen him before."

Tucson Citizen

"Vernon crafts a highly readable story...This character-rich saga is both gripping and engrossing."

New West

"The literature of Billy the Kid is extensive, but there will always be room for another book on the subject that is as finely written as is Lucky Billy...as Vernon darts in and out of different characters’ consciousnesses, introduces dozens of characters, and skips around in time, Lucky Billy ultimately rewards a reader’s attention, and delivers a convincing, human portrait of the legendary outlaw."

American Cowboy Magazine

"[Lucky Billy] is an entertaining, humanized portrait of The Kid as we've rarely seen him before."

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Read an Excerpt

Hello, Bob."     Bob Olinger looks up at Billy in the window and freezes on the spot. He’s a large man of vinegar aspect, a burly, dumb, squint-eyed giant with red hair, curiously infantile features, meaty hands, reeking breath, and, the Kid knows, a heart of pure lead. Two years ago he murdered Billy’s old friend John Jones by shaking Jones’s right hand with his left and squeezing it tight, which prevented Jones from drawing, and shooting him cold. Now he’s a deputy sheriff in Lincoln. There’s just no keeping some men down. For the record, his first name is not Bob but Ameredith, inflicted on him by a patriotic mother who wanted a girl. It was only yesterday that Bob had told the Kid he had no more chance of escaping under his guard than of going to heaven. Thanks for the aviso, Bob. From his perch in the window, Billy spots the prisoners Bob had escorted to the Wortley Hotel across the street watching from the hotel grounds. They won’t flee, he knows, even after Bob’s killed, for unlike the Kid they are trustees, they’ve even been allowed to wear their weapons at the courthouse, since their acquittal is all but assured. No court in New Mexico will convict five men for killing four others who’d fired on them first in a dispute over precious water rights — not when the accused men’s alfalfa fields needed irrigation. They’re being held at the courthouse in the room still referred to as Mrs. Lloyd’s room, named for Lawrence Murphy’s former housekeeper. And Billy’s being held, or was long enough for him to savor the irony, in the late Lawrence Murphy’s bedroom, for the Lincoln County Courthouse not that long ago was the Murphy-Dolan store, headquarters of the Irish ring against which he’d fought for the last four years. They’d started this mess. They’d killed John Tunstall. Dolan and his crew had once disarmed the Kid right here in the store and made him eat crow, and now look at him! It was the only two-story building in Lincoln, that’s why he can look down at poor Bob for a change instead of the latter toploftily sizing up his famous prisoner shackled to the floor before kicking his slats, as he’d done every morning for the past seven days when it was wakeup time.     Yesterday, when Sheriff Garrett left for White Oaks to order up the wood for the Kid’s gallows, he’d double-checked Billy’s shackles, called his deputies in, Olinger and Jim Bell, and warned them to be especially vigilant. If he’s shown the slightest chance, if he’s even allowed the use of one hand, if he’s not watched at every moment, he’ll effect some plan to murder the both of you and escape. Lip-labor, said Bob after Garrett left. The sheriff ought to save his spit. Bob’s response to his boss’s absence was to gloat over Billy, to taunt him all the more. Wake up, dearie, potty-time, dearie, can I get you something, dearie? The Kid in turn had greeted the two deputies at breakfast that morning, Ameredith and the more pleasant Jim Bell, with a cheerful "Morning, girls." They passed the time by playing poker in the sheriff’s office. "I never did enjoy killing a person," Bob said as he dealt.     "I did."     "But I’d love to kill you. It would give me great pleasure."     "Is that so."     Bob poured himself his first midday whiskey. Usually when the bottle was half drunk he offered Jim some. And Jim in turn, if Olinger had to use the privy, would wait until Bob had left the room and, due to the short chain on the Kid’s manacles, hold the bottle to his mouth. Is there kindness in hell? Jim asked Bob, "What do you mean you never did enjoy it?"     "I never had a weakness for it. It didn’t take with me."     "Didn’t take?" Billy said. "You make it sound like the cow pox."     "What is it then, sweetheart?"     "It’s just pulling a trigger. You’re the messenger, that’s all. The bullet was assigned and fired long ago, before you ever come along."     Bell said, "That’s a crazy idea."      "What about you?" Bob asked Billy. "Was your bullet assigned?"      "Everyone’s was. You can’t duck it, either."      "You’ve ducked plenty."     "They weren’t mine."     "In other words, do I have this straight? The bullet you dodge isn’t yours. But the one you don’t is. That’s — there’s a name for that. It’s un-American. No matter what you do, it just had to be. That’s a pissant philosophy."     "I’ll tell you why," said Billy. "My stepfather said it. Your bullet’s coming after you all through your life. It follows you around, takes every turn you take. Spend too long in any one place, sleep too much, it’s bound to catch up."     "I myself sleep a lot."     "It’s best to keep moving. Look out!"     Olinger jumped up, knocking over his chair. He threw his cards on the table. "You little cunt-garbage," he hissed. "Back to your hole, maggot!"     "Shoot me, Bob, and get it over with."     "I’ll get it over with! I’ll get it over with!" With one arm, he grabbed Billy’s chains and dragged him out the door to the head of the stairs. The other held his ten-gauge Whitneyville shotgun. "Go ahead. Run." He released his prisoner, opened the shotgun and looked inside the breech, then closed it with a shlang.     "How can I run with these shackles?"     "You’ll run if I tell you." He kicked him in the ass and Billy slid down the stairs, protecting his face by skidding on his elbows, and managed to break the fall halfway down. Then he turned and mounted the steep flight of stairs with baby steps enforced by the heavy shackles. "I was hoping you’d do it," said Bob. "If you’d of just reached the landing I would have blasted you to hell. I’d love to see you make a run for it. They would have to collect the little pieces in a jar."     "I wouldn’t give you the satisfaction."     "In that case, my satisfaction shall be watching you hang. I’ll be right in front with a smile on my face."     "That’s a lie and you know it. You never smiled in your life."     Mrs. Lesnett on her walks past the courthouse heard these daily altercations. She’d once hidden the Kid in a grain bin in her barn during the Lincoln County War. When she walked by that afternoon, Bob, to cool off, had wandered out onto the balcony and lit up a cheroot while Bell and the Kid, with Bob’s half-empty bottle to pilfer, resumed playing cards inside. Bob shouted down, "Annie! Mrs. Lesnett! You ought to come to the hanging. Watch his neck stretch. You used to cook for him, ain’t it?"     "He’s a nice boy."     "And your husband didn’t know. You hid him in a mash barrel, I heard, lest the Dolans burn you out."     "You should mind your own business."     "Well, come to the hanging. It will be fun."     And from inside the courthouse Billy’s voice shouted: "If I’m not there they can’t hang me!"

Meet the Author

John Vernon is the author of the novels La Salle, Lindbergh's Son, Peter Doyle, and All for Love: Baby Doe and Silver Dollar. The recipient of two NEA fellowships, he teaches at SUNY Binghamton. His work has been published in Harper's Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, The Los Angeles Times, New York Newsday, and The Nation. The author currently resides in Vestal, New York.

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