The first reviews of Peter Carey’s historical novel, True History of the Kelly Gang, began rolling in almost exactly a year ago. The author’s sweeping literary treatment of the short life of Ned Kelly, Australia’s legendary 19th-century outlaw, was undoubtedly bold: epic in its scope, modernistic in its technique, and unapologetic in its depiction of Kelly as a man driven to his famous crimes by conspiracies of poverty, ignominy and desperation. But would critics outside of Australia–where Kelly and his exploits have ascended to national mythology–connect with a story so firmly rooted in the idiomatic culture of that country, told in equally idiomatic language?
Judgments issued by The New York Times Book Review, The Los Angeles Times, London’s Times Literary Supplement, The New Yorker and others all suggested that Carey had soared gracefully over that hurdle. Reviews were almost unanimously euphoric; favorable comparisons were made not only to Carey’s contemporaries (Cormac McCarthy’s name came up a lot), but to Joyce and even Dickens. Then lightning struck Carey for a second time: Already the recipient of Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize–the equivalent of our National Book Award–for his 1988 novel Oscar and Lucinda, the author was short-listed for True History, and stunned the world’s literary community by taking the Booker home again, becoming only the second author ever to win it twice. (The other is J.M. Coetzee.)
When Carey reads from True History in the Triangle this Saturday, audience members will have the opportunity to hear the rough-hewn poetry of Ned Kelly’s speech–the novel takes the form of a long confession to his daughter, whom he has never met–relayed through the voice of the 58-year-old author, whose Australian accent has softened little since he moved to the United States more than a decade ago. On the page, Ned’s words rush together with only haphazard punctuation to modulate their furious rhythm, a narrative convention that illustrates his lack of formal education. (Sample sentence: “When Maggie saw all she had baked for me now laid out she began to cry and then Gracie were weeping as well and Kate looked as if she would at any moment join the chorus so I told them all about old Daylight’s pranks and how I nearly shot him for a kangaroo.”) But the juggernaut of words, images and ideas also suggests a man on the run, which Kelly was for most of his life: Pauses of any sort are luxuries to someone being chased by retribution-minded constables.
If Ned sometimes comes across as a primal, gun-toting Stephen Dedalus, the association might not be entirely accidental. True History may have been written by Australia’s most celebrated living writer, and it may be set in the rugged wilderness of northeast Victoria, but at its heart it’s an Irish novel. In this outback bildungsroman, the artist as a young man is an actual outlaw rather than an aesthetic outlaw, but Ned is just as race-aware, and just as devoted to conscience-forging, as Joyce’s youthful antihero. In Ned’s case, however, his oppressors aren’t church and patrimony, they’re cops and jailers.
“The Irish in that particular part of Australia tended to be poorer and less educated, and of course they were Catholic in an environment that was distinctly Church of England,” Carey says in a telephone interview from his home in New York City. “They were perhaps more likely to be of convict stock. Still they had been made a promise [through government land acts] that they could at least become poor yeoman farmers. But they had no capital, and thus they had no real chance. The larger farmers conspired against them and got the best land, and the police acted in support of the wealthier farmers.”
Carey vividly depicts the squalor and social marginalization that defined the lives of poor Irish in rural, mid-19th-century Australia, and, without resorting to outright apologia, places each of Ned Kelly’s transgressions in a context that humanizes him and renders his actions morally comprehensible. Young Ned’s very first misdeed is to steal a heifer from a neighbor, slaughter it and present it to his starving family members, who devour it fearfully. Later he is sold into servitude by his mother to one of her erstwhile lovers, a famous highwayman who does a passable job standing in for Ned’s father before betraying him.
From that point onward, every one of Ned’s crimes stems from the instinct to protect himself or a family member from disgrace, to avenge a perfidy, or to save his own skin. His actions are violent, but his code is unimpeachable. When he shoots a police constable in self-defense, however, he seals his own doom. The establishment, previously content to torment the Kelly family with prosecutorial harassment and frequent lock-ups, wants him dead. Class enmity blossoms into class warfare.
“Those kinds of issues were really formed at the very beginning of Australia,” Carey says. “You had a class of convicts, and you had a class of jailers. You had an establishment point of view that said Australia could never be great because of the ‘stain’ of the convicts and their seed. The Kelly story in a way represents the triumph of that convict class over the deterministic viewpoint of their oppressors, the viewpoint that they’ll never amount to anything. Ned Kelly shows himself to be smarter, more protean and more decent than his oppressors.”
So True History is a historical novel, an Australian novel and an Irish novel–but can it be read as a modern, American novel, too? Over here, the charismatically lawless champions of tyrannized populations are regularly cut down in their prime on city streets, only to be reborn as folk heroes, their faces decorating countless murals from Bed-Stuy to Compton. In today’s Australia, Ned Kelly’s defiance is viewed by many as a crude, desperate, but ultimately political response to the indignities visited upon his people by racist authorities. His crimes, whether against civilians or police, were typically reactive; he was, in his way, lashing out at those who would dare disrespect him–aligning himself sociologically with a generation of disenfranchised urban youth who would emerge more than a century later, half a world away.
Carey doesn’t balk at the analogy. “One way to understand Ned Kelly, who he is and what he represents, could be to think of him not as a white Irishman but as someone living in a rural version of the urban American projects,” he offers. “The notion of the ‘gangsta rapper’ figure isn’t a million miles away from the Kellys. In both cases, this idea of needing respect, of demanding it from those around you, is pretty easy to understand. When you’re brought up in an environment where that’s the one thing you’re continually denied, day after day, then you’ll be continually enraged by that denial.”
Carey has just returned from Melbourne, where he took part in a literary luncheon that was also attended by descendants of people who had been held captive by the Kelly gang, as well as descendants of a boy whose life Ned Kelly once saved.
“When you go out to the little towns, out into the country, Ned Kelly is still a passionate issue,” Carey says. “The great bulk of people–and not just poor people–were for him, and there were huge petitions at the time of his death. The Melbourne establishment was frightened of him and dismissive of him for a long time, but they’ve just put together a Ned Kelly exhibition at the Melbourne jail, where he was hanged. Even among establishment figures, there have always been those who have supported him. I think it was the wife of the governor of Victoria who once said that if it hadn’t been for the First World War, the Kelly boys would have won the Victoria Cross. And there are a number of judges and lawyers who say that were he retried today, he would not be convicted.”