The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones by Charles Neider review
A classic western about Billy the Kid’s final days re-released on its 60th anniversary
The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones
The Kid wasn’t particularly old, only 24 or so, but Hendry Jones was already fatalistic, tired of killing and even more weary of waiting to be killed. It was a slow yet hectic business, the days dragging by in a mindless haze of alcohol and squabbles, with the occasional marathon ride to Mexico and back, but always with the tension of expectation and wondering just whose bullet was going to have your name on it.
Charles Neider’s classic western about a notorious outlaw’s final days, as recalled years later by a friend, Doc Baker, the Kid’s still slightly incredulous sidekick, is both earthy and chilling. This is the 60th-anniversary republication of a terrific deadpan yarn that not only captures the violence and multiple ironies of an ambivalent genre, in which many of the outlaws changed sides and became lawmen, but also conveys the essential eeriness of it all.
The west was won in a free-for-all played out in a magnificent wilderness, devoid of rules, never mind basic humanity. Once the Native Americans, the various indigenous tribes, were robbed of their ancient hunting grounds and forced into reservations, the white men could concentrate on murdering each other. Any dispute, be it over land, cattle, a horse or honour, or even over a chance remark, tended to be settled in one way, clinically and by gun.
Doc Baker is no saint. He had ridden with the Kid when the gang had, at its peak, consisted of 12 desperadoes – or, as Baker recalls: “A great bunch of boys, and we could have licked any part of the country. We had enough guns and ammunition cached out in the hills to keep us safe half a year and we had spots up there from which we could pick off a small army with our Winchesters and Sharps guns . . . When things were quiet we could always shoot up a town or pick a fight with someone we wanted to kill or start a stampede or a small war.”
Baker had been recruited by the Kid on the strength of his own reputation as a fast draw.
On the day they first met Doc was fixing something to eat when the Kid rode up with three of his henchmen. One of them, a thug named Bob, prepared to relieve Doc of the two spare horses he had with him. But Baker is quick to the draw, and the ever-enigmatic Kid, impressed and in control of his men, intervenes and invites Baker to join them.
There are echoes of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), but Baker’s narrative is not as seamless as Marlow’s. Neider, who was an authority on Mark Twain, allows the Doc a degree of rueful irony, but every character is described in forensic physical detail. When he is recalling events he saw and exchanges in which he either participated or engaged, Doc is reliable, in that we have no need to doubt him, especially as he makes it clear that he plans to set the record straight: “I was there and I know what happened.”
His main concern is with telling “exactly how and why the Kid died”, and this he and Neider do brilliantly. In addition to the killing is a daring escape from a little jail. For much of his stay the Kid is treated as if he were a guest at an eccentric hotel. There are long passages of conversation interspersed with card games; it all leads to a cleverly opportunistic breakout, about a part of which the Kid feels badly.
Less convincing are some of the sequences in which he was not present; these episodes jar, as Neider makes no effort to explain how Doc would be able to reconstruct fraught dialogue between the Kid and his former lover Nika, the volatile Mexican siren who has gone and married her dying cousin. Doc’s annoying overview is a minor complaint but worth noting, and is probably more obvious because his laconic drawl of a narrative voice as a direct witness is otherwise compelling, managing to sound calm and reflective. In him Neider has created a truth teller who has had a long time to dwell over the facts.
Hendry Jones, small, pale and boy-like, is based on the real outlaw Henry McCarthy, better known as William Bonney or Billy the Kid, slain at 21, in 1881, by Sheriff Pat Garrett. Neider, who was born in Odessa and moved with his family to the US when he was five, sifts through the history with the lore. He makes specific use of Bonney’s death as recalled by Garrett, who shot him while the gunfighter fetched meat for a late-night snack at a friend’s house.
Considering the amount of violence – the most common response to anything appears to be a squeeze of the trigger – this action novel, which includes a despicable revenge killing of a boy and his horse, is primarily an intensely psychological study of the tormented but coldly ruthless Kid.
Doc makes no apologies for any of it and proves a candid narrator. Looking back on it all, he concedes, “We never thought that some day we would be slowing down, and none of us ever thought, I reckon, that maybe we’d get killed. We acted as though we’d live forever and when one of us got killed he was so surprised it had happened to him. That was just one of the ways in which we were different from the Kid. The Kid was never surprised about getting killed . . . He knew he was going to get killed, and was waiting for it, I think.”
Readers of Cormac McCarthy will notice the extent of Neider’s influence, and several of the passages would fit easily into a McCarthy novel. Yet Neider is less theatrical; his conversational prose, although highly descriptive, is far less showy and wantonly apocalyptic, if equally atmospheric: “And the sun was a sun you could really talk about – the same sizzling ball in that inky sky as it was out in the inland ranchos.”
He balances the Californian elements with the Mexican and celebrates the landscape.
In telling the story Doc Baker mourns the Kid with sincerity, not sentiment. There is nothing fake or fancy, no literary excess. The same is true of Neider. Great westerns are both mythic and defiantly down to earth, as is this powerful ballet of menace.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent