Part 2: Transitory Condition in ‘The Collected Works of Billy the Kid’
When the character Billy stops by a river to rest, Ondaatje uses free verse poetry, with alternating stanzas consisting of three lines-two lines-three lines-two lines. In this section, Billy is presented not as an animal or as a man, but something in between:
A river you could get lost in
and the sun a flashy hawk
on the edge of it
a mile away you see the white path
of an animal moving through water
you can turn a hundred yard circle
and the horse bends dribbles his face
you step off and lie in it propping your head
till dusk and cold and the horse shift you
and you look up and moon a frozen’s bird’s eye (23)
The reader is presented with narrative structure crafted to appear like the river mentioned in the first line: “A river you could get lost in” (23). There are no periods, or punctuation of any kind. The whole section reads like one, long run on sentence. Ondaatje, playing with the metaphysical here, crafts a section where the poetic syntax is river-like. The conjunction “and” is used seven times creating a cadence when read aloud similar to a river’s natural ebb and flow. Billy identifies a place where “you” (23), indicative of “you the reader”, can get lost (23). The reader certainly does “get lost in” (23) this section, similar to how the reader was lost amidst a sea (188) of syntactical fragmentation in Ondaatje’s RIF. In the physical presence of the “river”, the character Billy, his first person narrative, and the reader, are swept away.
Billy, or “you”, observes, “a mile away you see the white path/of an animal moving through water” (23). Using the word “mile” indicates that the character has a human conception of distance — animals do not assign the signified “6,076 feet” with the signifier “mile”. Also the word “you” is employed, directly addressing the reader and inviting them to be a participant within the text. “You the reader” (emphasis added) and the character Billy are one in the same — distinctly human. However, as the character identity of Billy/the reader is “lost in” the tidal current of “river”-like poetic syntax, the human side of the character Billy, and “you the reader”, is lost as well.
you can turn a hundred yard circle
and the horse bends dribbles his face
you step off and lie in it propping your head (23)
Associating with the “horse [that] bends and dribbles his face” (23) the character Billy/You also seeks the river and “lies in it” (23). Billy physically puts himself on the level of the horse that bends to drink from the river (23). Because Billy must bend in order to “lie in it [the river]” (23), Billy reduces himself to the animal state. It becomes more difficult to distinguish between the human Billy, and the animal Billy, the closer he gets to the water.
Interestingly in ‘Savage Fields: An Essay in Literature and Cosmology’ Dennis Lee seeks to highlight what he deems the “internal division” (Lee, 172) of Billy the Kid . He argues that the character Billy exists in a World vs Earth dynamic in which he, as “an instrument of murder, a citizen of the world” (170) is engaged with a constant struggle against the instinctual manifestations of earth, i.e. Billy’s massacre of the crazed rats (Ondaatje, 18 & Lee, 169). He calls Billy’s own “internal division” — being a representative of the world but at the same time existing and attempting to dominate Earth — a “manifestation of the whole world’s schizophrenia” (Lee, 172). What Lee proves is that Billy exists between states, never fully accepting being part of the World and never fully accepting his role as mechanical dominator over Earth.
Lee associates mechanical objects, and operation of, with the World: i.e. Billy’s gun. He associates Earth with sensory perception and animals. What we see present in the transitory condition is an explanation to Lee’s character analysis of Billy’s “schizophrenia” (emphasis added, not literal schizophrenia). Billy is man in some parts of the book, animal in others, and when he encounters liquid the lines blur and a new Billy emerges: one that can be said to be both World and Earth, animal and human.
This pattern continues when the character Billy is riding on his horse and, in the presence of sweat, the reader is unable to distinguish where Billy ends and the horse beings:
sad billys body glancing out
body going as sweating horses go
reeling off me wet
scuffing down my arms
wet horse white
streaming wet sweat round the house
sad billys out
floating barracuda in the brain (37)
In the opening line the reader is presented with Billy’s body “Glancing out” (37) and then “going as sweating horses do” (37). To glance, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), means to move rapidly, esp. in an oblique or transverse direction; to dart, shoot; to spring aside (OED). Though the verb “glance” is reminiscent of animal like movement, it is also reflective of the fluid quality of “the sweat” (37) described in the next line. The reader sees here that Billy is associated with a human, by way of the narrative addressed by his human signifier “Billy”, and also with an animal, by way of his bodily movement. He is neither animal nor man, instead he begins his transition to the ambiguous between state.
The next line states: “Reeling off me wet” (37). The “me” described here initiates a sudden switch to 1st person narration, instead of clarifying the speaker, actually works to disassociate the reader. The reader can only assume that the “me” riding the horse is the same character mentioned two lines previously, Billy. However, this construct of Me vs Billy works to create two forms of the same character struggling to emerge within the piece. Horses, during the first two lines, are presented as “sweating” creatures. Now the character “me” seems to be sweating like the horse, while the human character Billy is simply a “sad… body” (37).
The character “me” has sweat “reeling off me wet/scuffing down my arms” (37) onto the “wet white horse” (37). The character “me’s” sweat joins the animal as their characters become one and the same. Their bodily fluids ooze over each other and create shelter for the transitioning Billy/me. The imagery is similar to a mother pregnant with her child, and indeed the wetness even encircles the horse similar to a womb: “streaming wet sweat round the house” (37). The character is sweating around a “house” (37) as opposed to a “horse” (37), same amount of letters, same starting consonant—actually, there is only one letter of difference. This indicates that the character associates “horse” with the human conceptualisation of “house” or “shelter”. The character’s physical body has combined with the horse by liquid sweat, though the character’s mindset appears to still have human conceptualisations. The reader is trapped between acknowledging the fully animal side of Billy, or the fully human, and is instead left with the undefined, ambiguous Billy.
When characters in Ondaatje’s RIF and BTK encounter liquids in the narrative, character identity becomes fluid and changeable. Perhaps because of Ondaatje’s background as a Third Culture Individual, the characters of his worlds are crafted to fit the transitory condition. The main character in RIF travels throughout Sri Lanka collecting stories about a past made up of memories and stories — both of which constantly change. Like the journey, the novel takes the reader into a world where characters are torn from the ledger and the annals of family history and given a new life. The reader joins the main character on this journey, throughout all the difficult navigation of untraditional syntax, to the climaxes where Lalla and Ondaatje’s father lose their identity to the greater family story: Lalla becomes part of a mythical flood, Ondaatje’s father becomes a fictitious character that Ondaatje can only speculate about meeting until they become indistinguishable from each other in the alcohol fuelled pages of “Thanikama”. Billy the Kid — the mythical, western gunslinger — is shown by Ondaatje a various points in his life. The reader is constantly moving with Billy trying to affix time and circumstance to the cinema of his life. Ondaatje gives the reader a new perspective on Billy, one where he isn’t only the murdering, western gunslinger but also a traveler, a lover, and a sensitive being — attuned to his animal side as well as his human side. In this sense, in Ondaatje’s character identity is a necessary variable, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to craft stories that draw the reader so close, and refuse to let go.
Noah Klein is a Pushcart-nominated poet and prosaist whose primary focus is self-discovery and community engagement through writing. His interests lie in building new and innovative ways for poetry and prose (fiction and non-fiction) to reach — as well as to bridge the gap between — grassroots and popular audiences.
 Ondaatje, Michael, ‘Running in the Family’. New York: Vintage International, 1993.
 Ondaatje, Michael, ‘The Collected Works of Billy the Kid’, New York: Norton, 1974.
 Giltrow, Janet, and David Stouck, “Mute Dialogues’: Micheal Ondaatje’s ‘Running in the Family’ and the Language of the Postmodern Pastoral”, ‘Postmodern Fiction in Canada’, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1992. 161-79.
 Lee, Dennis, ‘Savage Fields: An Essay in Literature and Cosmology’, House of Anansi Pr, 1977.