Thieves Like Us

Novelist Peter Carey finds in the outlaw Ned Kelly an Australian foundation myth

Near the close of Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang, before the death of the outlaw Ned Kelly is told (his last words on the gallows were as pithy as any spoken by a character of Beckett's: "Such is life"), the man whose betrayal led to Kelly's ultimate capture bemoans the legend his countrymen have bestowed on a criminal: "What is it about Australians, eh? he demanded. What is wrong with us? Do we not have a Jefferson? A Disraeli? Might not we find someone better to admire than a horse-thief and a murderer? Must we always make such an embarrassing spectacle of ourselves?"

Native Australian Carey, who received the Booker Prize for his novel Oscar and Lucinda in 1988, has heard a similar response to his True History back home: "The thing about the story now is that there are a good number of Australians that are embarrassed by it, that wish it would go away. It is a minority, but they don't see it, because it plays into all the worst British prejudices against us. They want to be sophisticated and educated."

Enjoying a midafternoon lunch of curried sole and a glass of red wine at the Ritz-Carlton, Carey has the right amount of sophistication and education to disparage such qualities. He's a thin, puckish Aussie with a rooster flare of hair and round wire-rimmed glasses who encourages the interviewer to join him in a drink. When the waiter asks Carey whether he'd have another glass of wine, he replies mischievously, "Of course I would. I'm on a book tour. What else am I gonna do?" In response to a literary question about the relationship between historical fact and imaginal fiction, Carey responds with what he calls his "Who gives a fuck?" answer: "No one gives Shakespeare a hard time about Richard III. Leave me alone."

"Like all good Irish stories and Australian stories," says novelist Peter Carey, the story of the outlaw Ned Kelly is "a terrible fuck-up and a disaster."
Marion Ettlinger
"Like all good Irish stories and Australian stories," says novelist Peter Carey, the story of the outlaw Ned Kelly is "a terrible fuck-up and a disaster."
"Like all good Irish stories and Australian stories," says novelist Peter Carey, the story of the outlaw Ned Kelly is "a terrible fuck-up and a disaster."
Marion Ettlinger
"Like all good Irish stories and Australian stories," says novelist Peter Carey, the story of the outlaw Ned Kelly is "a terrible fuck-up and a disaster."

Ned Kelly doesn't have the renown of Jesse James or Billy the Kid here in the States, but to Australians the events of his brief, violent life are known, says Carey, "like the Stations of the Cross." The Euroa Bank robbery, the gunfight at Stringybark Creek, the last stand at Glenrowan (with Ned dressed in a suit of armor concocted from scrap iron, impervious to bullets until he's shot in his unprotected legs) -- these are as central to Australian folklore as Odysseus' journey home is to Western mythology. Kelly, the son of an Irishman dispatched to the convict colony, begins his life, as Carey describes his social status, "at the bottom of the shit pile." But Kelly's exploits as an outlaw, defying the British rule -- leading to, "like all good Irish stories and Australian stories," says Carey, "a terrible fuck-up and a disaster" -- transformed him to legend, greater than Jefferson, greater than Disraeli in the Australian imagination.

The Kelly legend is so known, though, that when Carey -- who transplanted himself to New York 10 years ago -- "told Aussies I was doing this, they said, 'Why would you bother? We all know about it.' I thought, 'No, you don't.' There's a whole way in which this story has been underimagined. The events of his life are very small in comparison to the stretch of a life. Historians can't imagine the emotional life. What I tried to do was to take these things that are known and imagine all the stuff in the unimagined dark."

True History of the Kelly Gang is told in the lyrical, ungrammatical phrasings of the outlaw Ned himself: "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," he begins. Through Ned's voice, Carey develops the psychology of one who knows of life little more than hardship and shame: "They knew our pater were in the logs and when we come to school each day they learned from Mr Irving that all micks was a notch beneath the cattle." Yet Kelly is also keen to the social constructs that keep him and his family in the mire, living in "a colony made specifically to have poor men bow down to their gaolers." The circumstances of poverty and social injustice -- and a mother who refuses to bend to British law -- supply Kelly his destiny, but he develops a larger vision of what his outlaw's life can mean. He describes the celebration of the birth of his daughter (to whom he scribes this history) and the arrival of "the most frightful class of people they couldn't afford to leave their cows & pigs but they done so because we was them and they was us and we had showed the world what convict blood could do. We proved there were no taint we was of true bone blood and beauty born."

Carey masterfully lets this poetic voice sing throughout the course of the novel. Despite Kelly's poverty of punctuation, there's not a maladroit sentence, and many read as wonders of sentiment and craft: "In a settler's hut the smallest flutter of a mother's eyelids are like a tin sheet rattling in the wind."

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