Saturday, November 12, 2005

BOOK REVIEW/ GoHa
True History of the Kelly Gang
Peter Carey
Knopf, 352 pages, $25

Ned Kelly -- outlaw, folk hero, bloodthirsty killer, persecuted scapegoat. The Robin Hood of Australia, man for all nations. Man with the bucket on his head.

The latter designation, applied by one of Kelly's detractors in reference to his armor-clad last stand, pales in comparison to the more dramatic appellations, including the more hyperbolic assessments that go far beyond the pale, and the pail: "Ned Kelly," declares one of his apologists, "became a legend during his own life, and a contributor to the mythology of the bush -- the bush as a cradle of mateship, equality, the emphasis on the masculine virtues of strength, and the belief that the bush life was the cradle of much that was different from other lands, the cradle of the Australian, the cradle of the yearning for the life of the fearless, the free and the bold."

And the home of the brave, perhaps, too -- there are enough elements in Kelly's life to evoke American legend and the Wild West that you half expect to hear the boast that Kelly killed him a b'ar when he was only 3. Or a 'roo, as it goes.

As tall tales go, Kelly had enough stranger-in-town, ride-into- the-sunset mystique to muddle the distinction between cold-blooded murderer and bold, coddled martyr. All the biographers, historians, poets, playwrights and screenwriters who have not come to a consensus also have not been able to sort out fact from fiction about the exploits of Ned Kelly and his gang. This is perfect, perhaps, for Australia, whose history, noted Mark Twain, "does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies. ... It is full of surprises and adventures, the incongruities, the contradictions, and incredibilities"

Perfect perhaps, too, for Peter Carey, the Australian-born Booker Prize-winning author of "Oscar and Lucinda," "Jack Maggs" and "Bliss," whose works, which include everything from science fiction to gothic romance, contain more than a touch of the surreal and grotesque, and more than enough beautiful lies and surprises and incredibilities of their own. And so into the variegated fray of Kelly and his world enters Carey with a engrossing, rewarding and slightly revisionist take.

"True History of the Kelly Gang" is constituted as a series of letters written by Kelly to the baby daughter he will never live to see. "I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age," Kelly begins, "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."

Tall order, and if such first-person, protests-too-much pronouncements calls into question complete credibility, there's no denying a full-frontal emotional wallop. Live fast, die young and leave a good look-into-the-past corpus. "True History" is an account that centers on "the injustice we poor Irish suffered in this present age," and in it Kelly makes a believable case in which tensions with the British colonial administration in Australia lead to initial scrapes, if not ultimately to Kelly's mounting troubles and demise at age 25.

The eldest son of exiled Irish-born parents who were "ripped from Ireland like teeth from the mouth of their own history," Ned Kelly was born in 1855 in an Australia where the best land was held by a handful of wealthy "squatters." As a poor family, the Kellys' only opportunity came with becoming "selectors," in a system in which families took areas of land set aside by the government and paid in installments. They were also required to improve the property by clearing it, building a house, putting up a fence and growing a crop - - and facing eviction if they didn't. The land was often marginal, with plots too small and soil too poor to provide a living; faced with poverty, selectors sometimes turned to cattle- and horse- stealing.

This was the situation for the Kelly family, leading to more and more frequent clashes with the law. In 1870, Ned Kelly was sentenced for six months of hard labor for assault, and the next year sentenced to three years in jail for receiving a stolen horse. In 1877, a policeman came to the home to arrest Ned's brother Dan for stealing livestock. When a fight broke out and the policeman was shot and wounded, Kelly's mother was sentenced to jail for her part in attempted murder.

Outraged at the perceived injustice, Ned and Dan, along with accomplices Joe Byrne and Steve Hart, became bushrangers, fleeing to the countryside. In 1878, the Kelly gang killed three policemen in a shootout outside Melbourne. Their reputations and rewards for their capture growing as they continued to raid towns and rob banks during the next two years, while all along Ned tried to get letters to newspapers published in which his side of the story could be made heard.

The culminating gunfight came in 1880 in which the gang, protected somewhat in makeshift suits made of iron, was cornered by police. The shootout is at first vividly rendered in the book as Kelly details "a drama devised by me," then completed by third-person narratives in which, largely unsympathetic to Kelly's hope that "in the end we poor uneducated people will all be made noble in the fire," the "ever-growing adoration of the Kelly Gang" is denigrated.

"What is it about we Australians, eh?" asks a civilian who has bravely helped the police capture Kelly. "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? Must we always make such an embarrassing spectacle of ourselves?"

In what is essentially a warts-and-all appreciation of Kelly -- and decidedly not an all-out glorification -- Carey offers up such corrective rhetoric not only to balance the scales a bit, but also to point out the human dimensions at work. Yeah, Ned Kelly may be the man with the bucket on his head, but he's our man with the bucket on his head. A wash-up worthy of worship to some, Kelly's criminal life is devoted to making a spectacle of himself -- not easy when, in startling developments, one of his men turns out to be an opium addict and another shows up for robberies and raids wearing a dress. But Kelly's actions are undertaken for his family's survival and to spring his mother from jail, and because he has"seen proof that if a man could tell his true story to Australians he might be believed."

If Kelly makes it up as he goes along, as Carey suggests when he alludes to the Robin Hood give-to-the-poor routine as being a serendipitous afterthought, and if Kelly displays a selective memory, as when he glosses over his horrific but foiled train derailment scheme, any so-called heroics are still in the interest of "the unyielding law the historic memory of unfairness" that was in the blood of any Australian. Equally important, as he tells his unborn daughter, "it weren't nothing to do with death at all it were its very opposite you was my future right away from that moment you was my life."

The rough-around-the-edges style of "True History of the Kelly Gang" is a departure from the richly textured writing found in such Carey novels as the Australia-set "Oscar and Lucinda," but the punch of the punctuation-challenged, ungrammatical run-on approach, laced with an enthusiastic use of euphemistic shorthand ("it were eff this and ess that and she would blow their adjectival brains out"), brings a directness and immediacy well-suited to the matter-of-fact unpretentiousness and moodiness of Kelly. The all-occasions coarseness brings out the humor ("Annie were the oldest but of a nervous disposition she had chosen this occasion to have the gastric fits"), poignancy ("in a settler's hut the smallest flutter of a mother's eyelids are like a tin sheet rattling in the wind") and insight ("there were a blaze showing in his eyes it were the fury of weak men") of various situations as Kelly traces his life. Early years as an "optimist" anticipating "from where happiness will come" evolve into his picaresque "apprenticeship" in crime, "travelling full tilt toward the man I would become," leading like doom to his later years when his "black mood would flood back and I would brood on how my life and land was taken from me."

And if these diversions were not enough to add color to what could be a collection of monochromatic dashed-off missives, "True History" is saturated with evocative flashpoints that reiterate setting and mood, propelling the action with accumulative, anticipatory force: "On this day of horror when the shadows of the wattle was gluey with men's blood I could not imagine what wonder might lie before me. We lads come down across German's Creek into Bullock Creek driving the police horses before us we now had 4 rifles and 4 Webleys and Joe rode with the Spenser slung across his back. As for me my skin were sour with death."

Maybe not grammatical, but pretty dramatic, still. As an epistolary novel, "True History of the Kelly Gang" may not be quite right, but it's close to letter-perfect.

Excerpts from True History of the Kelly Gang
I come out outside looking up in the peppercorn in case he climbed it thence to the veggie garden where I discovered my da's old shotgun laid across the path my mother sitting on the top step of the stile. She were rocking the way you see old women do at a wake her big veined hands rested on her belly. When she turned around her eyes was sunk her nose seemed grown she gone completely grey in just one day.
He bolted said she I could not stop the b--------r.
I picked up the shotgun it were well warmed.
But I stopped the adjectival horse she said and noting the way she continued holding her hands against her belly I realised she were with child again she were too old for this having lost 4 teeth while pregnant with John King now her cheeks was cleaving to her gums. I put my arm around my ma feeling only bone no flesh no hope she said her hut were damned it had never escaped the stinky man's curse and she would burn it to the ground she didn't care what crockery she lost.
I knew there were no curse on anything except that put on us by the police and squatters.

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