Outlaws in Oz

Peter Carey

My all-time favorite racial or ethnic epithet is “green nigger.” That’s what they called a person of Irish descent in New York City in the 19th century, and being a person of Irish descent I can appreciate the phrase, if not exactly embrace it. Like all immigrants who come to America, the Irish had a rough go of it at first, but after reading Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, it seems pretty clear that they had a far worse time Down Under, in Australia.

Carey, who lives in New York City but was born in Australia, is the author of six previous novels, including the award-winning Oscar and Lucinda. For his latest effort, he’s chosen one of Australia’s greatest folk heroes as his subject, famed bushranger (that’s Australian for outlaw, mate) Ned Kelly.

How famous is Ned Kelly? Well, Mick Jagger played him in the 1970 film Ned Kelly, and as recently as last month Australians were still debating ownership of what is purportedly Ned Kelly’s skull. Kelly, whose father was an Irish convict transported to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in the early 1800s, is arguably Australia’s greatest cultural icon; images of him were even displayed at the opening of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. With True History of the Kelly Gang, Carey seeks to move beyond these popular images, creating a three-dimensional Ned Kelly who has an emotional, as well as historical, life.

For the most part, Carey is successful. True History is an epistolary novel, imagined as a series of 13 letters Ned Kelly penned to his then-unborn daughter while he was on the run from the law in the years 1878 to 1880. Carey based Ned Kelly’s voice on an actual letter Kelly dictated to one of his gang members, Joe Byrne, who neglected to use commas or periods. Thus, Ned Kelly’s tale begins: “I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.”

Carey has created a unique voice here, although it is similar in form to that employed by Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes. The device hampers the suspension of disbelief at first—just how is it that this grade-school dropout manages to insert dialogue breaks and other literary tricks in precisely the correct places?—but this is soon forgotten as the reader is taken in by the story’s flow.

And what a story it is. Carey benefits from the fact that Kelly’s uprising, from his initial killing of three police officers to his final shootout with authorities, in which he and his gang donned makeshift suits of armor, was covered heavily by the Australian press at the time and has since been the subject of many historical studies. Ned Kelly’s life is presented as one of brutal, backbreaking poverty, in which Irish immigrants attempt to raise cattle and crops in a game that’s rigged by their English landlords from the get-go.

No doubt most of this is historically accurate, but the character who emerges from this brutality is a trifle unbelievable. Ned Kelly, who can bare-knuckle brawl with the best of them, doesn’t drink, smoke, cuss or have sex. Is he Irish, or a saint? When he finally does have intercourse, it’s with a hooker who has, that’s right, the stereotypical heart of gold. When he murders three police officers who are hunting him and his gang down, it’s portrayed more as an accident than a cold-blooded killing. Violence begets violence, and surely Ned Kelly’s cruel upbringing would have resulted in a character more volatile than Carey’s.

In that light, the author has failed in his stated mission to paint a portrait of Australia’s most beloved outlaw that transcends his romanticized historical image. Nevertheless, True History of the Kelly Gang is an exhilarating and highly recommended read. Consider it a tale of how the West was won (or perhaps lost), the Australian way.