Friday, June 26, 2015

Adventure classics – The case of the baby-faced killer

“The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan”
by Jorge Luis Borges

Billy the Kid
Edgar Allan Poe famously wrote that no subject is as poetic as the death of a beautiful woman. Too bad nobody’s found a counterpoint epigram for the fascination that surrounds a childlike killer. There’s something horribly fascinating about the boyish innocence of youthful killers, from 1930’s gangster George “Baby Face” Nelson, to Perry Smith of In Cold Blood infamy, to Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and week’s Dylann Roof. But the first of these was Billy the Kid.

Or as Argentinean Jorge Luis Borges names him in his 1935 collected volume of stories, A Universal History ofIniquities, “Bill Harrigan.”

I doubt the Kid would have minded getting a new alias. He’d already used William Henry McCarty, William H. Bonney, Henry McCarty and Henry Antrim, giving him a new name for almost everyone he killed in his 21 years of life. (Although reputed to have killed 21 men “not counting Mexicans” during his brief life, more modern estimates put the Kid’s number of fatalities at probably not more than a dozen.)

Borges, however, errs on the side of legend, using as sources Frederick Watson’s 1931 A Century of Gunmen and Walter Nobel Burns’ 1925 The Saga of Billy the Kid. (Borges read English fluently, thanks to his English grandmother.)

Stop, rewind. I’m writing an essay about stories of the southwestern United States and I’m using an example by a writer from South America. What’s up with that? Is this another blatant example of the Westernization of world culture?

Maybe. Or maybe not. Although Borges seems like the last person in the world to strap on a six-shooter, leap into the saddle and ride off into the sunset, he was also the inheritor of centuries of the centuries of frontier culture that spanned the Americas. And he admitted to a fondness for the Argentinean equivalent of Old West lawlessness, “of the toughs and petty criminals of the Buenos Aires underworld,” as he wrote in his preface to the 1954 edition of his Universal History (sometimes translated as A Universal History of Infamy).

In Borges’ version, the boy who would become Billy the Kid left his home in New York’s Bowery to join the westering movement infecting the country. At the age of 14, the scrawny youngster in a bar one night when a brawny giant enters, a pair of pistols at his belt, and “wishes all the gringo sons of bitches drinking in the place a buenos noches.” Someone whispers fearfully that this is Belisario Villagrán, from Chihuahua.

“Instantly a shot rings out. Shielded by the ring of tall men around him, Billy has shot the intruder. The glass falls from Villagrán’s hand; then the entire man follows. There is no need for a second shot.”

When someone offers to cut a notch on Billy’s gun to mark the killing, Billy mutters, “Mexicans ain’t worth making’ notches for.” The legend has begun.

Although there are more than a dozen other stories in Universal History, and more would be added in later English translations, this one of a youthful killer seems appropriate for a youthful writer. Do we need another rewind? Borges was actually well into his 30’s when he wrote the stories of Universal History, but still dependent on his parents to supplement his meager income as a writer and editor. He would not marry until his 60’s, and that relationship was short-lived. He may have sometimes wished everything in life was simple enough to be solved with a few rounds from a six-shooter.)

(Next Friday, Adventure classics begins a July of science fiction adventures with Samuel L. Delany’s “Aye, and Gomorrah. . . ”)

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