This story is the song of Australia, and it sings its protest in a voice at once crude and delicate, menacing and heart-wrenching. The author gives us Ned Kelly as orphan, as Oedipus, as horse thief, farmer, bushranger, reformer, bank-robber, police-killer and as his country's Robin Hood.
True History of the Kelly Gang turned me around somewhat. I know it’s just fiction, but it’s well-researched fiction that seems to ring true to real life. Most of it is told from the perspective of Ned Kelly himself, in the form of a memoir he is writing to his (fictional) child, and Carey has instilled him with a wonderful narrative voice: lacking commas, expletives censored out, a general rolling conversational style that I couldn’t help but hear in an Irish accent. The story is an account of Ned’s life all the way from his childhood to his famous last stand at Glenrowan, and explains how and why he became the man he did.
Ned Kelly, like many settlers in 19th century Australia, was Irish. The upper class – the landowners, the magistrates, the governors and the police – were largely English. From the very early days of his life, Ned’s family was abused and oppressed and tormented, as were his friends and neighbours, the conflicts of the old country exported to the new. This was crucial; Ned quite explicitly considered himself to be a political rebel, rising up against the English ruling class, wanting nothing more than land and freedom for himself and his family.
It is, of course, a novel, but the one real surviving piece of Kelly’s writing – the Jerilderie letter – outlines the same motives and desires. Furthermore, when he was captured at Glenrowan, he was in possession of a document outlining a proposed declaration of a republic in north-eastern Victoria. As somebody who is both Irish and republican, I find my sympathies leaning towards Kelly. He was still, of course, a thief and a killer, and not somebody whom I’d like to share a milkshake with, but I understand now why many Australians revere him.
I found it particularly interesting to read this directly after Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Towards the end of True History, a character opposed to the Kelly legend says:
What is it about we Australians, eh? he demanded. What is wrong with us? Do we not have a Jefferson? A Disraeli? Might we not find someone better to admire than a horse-thief and a murderer?
I’ve sold my copy of Zinn’s book, so I can’t quote directly, but in the interview towards the back he talks about how we shouldn’t always look to great leaders and heroes – the Lincolns, the Churchills, the Roosevelts – but should instead rely on ourselves, the people, to pull us through harsh times. Ned Kelly is obviously a hero and an icon as well, but he’s about as close to a hero of the people as you could ever get.
So, the book taught me a lot about Ned Kelly and changed my attitude towards him. Is it a good book? Yes. Not a fantastic book, and another Booker-winner that must have been the product of a slow year (like The Blind Assassin), but nonetheless a solid piece of Australian literature and something I’m glad to have read.
Incidentally, my copy was published in the United States, and the blurb makes this idiotic statement:
Exhilarating, hilarious, panoramic, and immediately engrossing, it is also – at a distance of many thousand miles and more than a century – a Great American Novel.
How? How is this Australian novel about an Australian historical figure written by an Australian and set in Australia even remotely a “Great American Novel?” Either the publisher didn’t think Americans would read a book that wasn’t somehow related to America, or Americans really won’t read a book unless it’s somehow related to America. Both are depressing.
But would it surprise you to learn I’m talking about the Old West of the Australian Outback, circa 1875? Carey’s felonious protagonist is Ned Kelly, a historical figure who has become a legend in Australian lore—sort of like Billy the Kid, the Down Under version.
Being a Yank (born in Pennsylvania, raised in Wyoming), I’d never heard of the notorious Kelly until I picked up Carey’s novel. Somehow, I’d missed the 1970 movie starring Mick Jagger as the outlaw (and music by poet Shel Silverstein!). Apparently, Ned’s the stuff of Robin Hood legends in the former British penal colony. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of the true history, for those as ignorant as I was:
Born in 1854 to Irish immigrants, Ned begins by telling us he was left fatherless when he was 12 (“raised on lies and silences‿). Forced off their land by poverty and circumstance, the Kellys (Ned, his mother and several siblings) moved to another district. But times proved hard there on the new farm and the teenage Ned was apprenticed to a highway robber (or “bushranger‿) named Harry Power. Young Ned learned the art of stick-ups (or “bail ups,‿ in the novel’s slang) and it wasn’t long before he landed in jail—his most frequent place of residence in the years to come. After doing hard labor, he was released from prison and returned home to find his family farm depleted and his mother persecuted by the local constabulary. He vowed to take his revenge on the local law for the injustices he perceived; and so, he and a small gang (which included his brother Dan) started horse thieving. Then, in 1878, a constable named Fitzgerald moved in on the farm—supposedly to arrest Dan, but as it turns out he wanted to see their sister Kate. One thing led to another, Kate was assaulted, Fitzgerald was wounded and embarrassed and he vowed to get retribution from the Kellys. A bounty was soon on the gang’s head and a posse was formed. This, in turn, led to a deadly shootout—deadly for the police, that is. Three constables were killed at a gun battle near Stringybark Creek, elevating the Kelly gang’s notoriety. Then banks were robbed, trains held up and more people murdered. As the noose tightened around Ned, he came up with a harebrained scheme to outwit the authorities: he built the first bullet-proof suit, an entire outfit made of iron (including a pot-like helmet with a slit cut out for the eyes). Unfortunately, in the gang’s final confrontation with the law, the 97-pound suit of armor proved only slightly impenetrable. A shot to his legs crippled him and he was captured. On November 11, 1880, Ned Kelly was hanged until dead.
Those are the “facts‿ as I’ve been able to glean them from skimming the internet. Read the jaunty novel by Carey (author of Oscar and Lucinda and Jack Maggs) and you’ll get a slightly narrower view of things—mainly because the entire rip-roaring tale is told in Kelly’s own voice, set down as a series of narratives to his daughter (a fictional license—the real Ned never married or fathered a child).
Presented as a series of “packets‿ whose contents have been hastily scrawled on bank letterhead and envelopes, the story comes to us smelling of unwashed grammar and rip-snorting vernacular. But because he’s writing to his daughter, Ned writes tenderly, avoiding unsavory language (the word “adjectival‿ is substituted for most four-letter oaths). The unpunctuated and run-on result is something that could be coming ripe off the pencil of Jesse James or Black Bart. Here, for instance, is a particularly memorable robbery scene where Ned and Harry have bailed up a stagecoach and the volatile Harry starts arguing with the driver:
I told him said the driver there aint no adjectival gold.
I’m Harry Power cried Harry and I say there is.
I don’t care if you’re the Duke of Gloucester said the driver there aint no gold mate and no amount of hollering is going to change that.
Eff you roared Harry firing the muzzleloader by design or accident decapitating a crow which had been innocently loitering by the road. The explosion alarmed my nervous packhorse so severely that it now went plunging out onto the open road with me clinging to the reins scratching my face in the wattle all I could think was I was now marked as a robber a woman inside the coach were staring directly at me.
True History of the Kelly Gang is sympathetic to the outlaw in the same way that the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid washed those fellows in golden light. Here, the ink is gold and so too, it would appear, is Ned’s heart. Carey’s favor lies with the ironclad bad guy and that certainly tilts the book to one side (“I have spilled human blood when there were no other choice‿).
While Carey’s passion for his subject is unmistakable, I couldn’t summon as much passion for the novel itself. For one thing, it gets my vote as the Most Laborious Reading Experience of the Year. I’ve read passage of James Joyce which were smoother sailing than Carey’s rough-hewed narrative, written almost entirely in Ned’s uneducated 19th-century dialect. The tumble-without-end sentences will remind some readers of William Faulkner or even the more contemporary Don DeLillo when he gets warmed up. Unfortunately, the prose created a barrier between the story and me; it took me nearly three weeks to work my way from first page to last.
And yet, I’ve got to admit that True History of the Kelly Gang might just be one of the most daring tricks of the literary year. It’s hard to sustain such an intensely illiterate voice for 354 pages, but Carey pulls it off with the confidence of someone who knows his subject inside out (from the golden heart to his ironclad clothes). This is not, by any means, a timid novel.
Peter Carey recounts Ned's life story in Ned's own voice, complete with the grammatical anomalies and lack of punctuation that might be expected from a semi-literate young man. The story is compelling and the character development, wonderful. Ned Kelly is a violent criminal, and yet very likeable. I actually found myself cheering him on in his escapades with the police.
True History of the Kelly Gang reminded me of other "outlaw" tales, like the story of Jesse James, or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This is not a subject that I'm particularly interested in, and I only read this book because it won the Booker Prize in 2001. I was not disappointed; in fact, I found this book absolutely delightful and difficult to put down. Peter Carey is one of only two authors to win the Booker Prize twice (the other is J. M. Coetzee). Now I can't wait to read his 1988 Booker winner, Oscar and Lucinda.
The final third was an improvement over the middle. Enough said. Wait...one more thing....if I hear the word "adjectival" one more time I will have to screech!
Obviously we are meant to read this more broadly than the specific period it is set in - Carey is showing us what life might look like if you are struggling to survive at the very bottom of society and everyone seems to be against you. But it also works extremely well as an historical novel - Kelly's semi-literate narrative voice is very convincing and consistent, and he gives us a very clear idea of what life was like at the bottom of the heap in rural Victoria. I'm not a judge of Australian idiom, but there was nothing that struck a jarring note for me. There is a lot of violence and unpleasantness in the story, inevitably, but Carey never allows Kelly to enjoy it or take it for granted. He kills policemen because it has become the only way to prevent them from killing him, but it disgusts him to have to do it.
I don't suppose that this is in any way a neutral and objective account of Kelly's life, but it's an entertaining and thought-provoking novel, and I'm glad I got around to it at last.
A note on style and punctuation. To add character to the story, the author is presenting the story with details as if truly written almost as a diary, and embellishing the presentation. (If the author could, I suspect he would have bound the book as it would have been in the 1800's). As such, being particularly accurate includes the punctuation that Ned Kelly would have used writing this himself. Which is to say none. I found this practice added to my experience of the book. Perhaps only twice or thrice did I find myself having to re-read a sentence again to get the break point. Once the reader plunges into the 'voice' of the reader and gets into it, it makes the book more real and the experience more vibrant. As an aside, I did feel the book got a little ribald at times which was my only and very slight complaint.
Which is part of the problem I had with the book. Kelly didn’t know how to use commas, or, more correctly, the author chose that Kelly should write that way. Not only commas, but the usual things that an author would use to show that his narrator is uneducated. Makes the novel a little difficult to get interested in, and hard to read, and wearing. I almost gave up around page 200 - it was just more of the same, but I slogged all the way to the end.
It won the Booker prize, but I was not that impressed.
But, that said, I learnt a few things along the way and although it's probably not going to make it onto my re-read list, I'll certainly be adding some of Peter Carey's other books to my reading list.