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."

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."

"The whole notion of the sentence is that it grew right out of our soil," says Carey. "This is our people, our language." Carey drew inspiration from the writer Kelly, who composed a 58-page letter while in hiding from the government, explaining his career. "This is from him," Carey acknowledges. "My language changes his, because I'm a novelist and he's an outlaw, but it always felt true to him. The language partly comes from his letter and also partly comes from my childhood as a pupil at Bacchus Marsh State School No. 28, where kids said these grammatical inversions or transpositions. They would say, 'I come into the room and there he were.' I knew kids that talked like that. So it never felt made-up."

Carey chose Faulkner's oft-quoted summation of history ("The past is not dead. It is not even past.") as the epigram to the novel, he says primarily for his Australian readers, especially a generation that disputes the relevance of the Irish/convict heritage as a new immigrant narrative displaces it. "These things don't go away," Carey argues. "You can't make it go away. It doesn't matter where people come from. This thing is going to keep going on. It is. If you want to reject it and not take it on board, fine, but you're children are going to.

"The thing about it is, foundation myths, foundation stories have a habit of doing that. In the case of Australia, we have convict beginnings. You have a convict colony, which Americans generally have a hard time to get a handle of. We seem like you, but we're not. This whole shame of the convict origins, the sense that we're second rate, cast out.

"This story, this is the convict seed: Ned Kelly. What he's showing, what he does, is he was braver, smarter, more decent -- there is the sense of the truly protean nature of humanity. We are these people, but we transcend that, and we are good because of that. That's really what it's about. He is the convict seed. He is us. We are him -- a man who doesn't ultimately triumph but triumphs over the alleged genetic and social limitations.

"I think what this says about us is a very, very fine thing. I think there's something in this that's quite good, the fact that we like this person."

The Irish director Neil Jordan (The End of the Affair, The Crying Game) has optioned the rights for the film adaptation and will write the screenplay. Carey believes he's blessed with the perfect fit. "I can think of nothing better than an Irish director going to Australia. What a great thing -- work with Irish actors and Australian actors in that landscape. And these are issues [Jordan's] very interested in. He's got things he wants to deal with."

Until this time, the iconic symbol of Kelly for Australians has been the outlaw dressed in his armor for his final shootout. With Carey's book, and what will be Jordan's movie, the armor is being removed to more greatly imagine the man. "That's all the stuff we never wanted to imagine," says Carey. "Here's Ned Kelly: He's the man with the iron armor. In a way, we Australians have been happier and more comfortable with the armored masculinity. We don't really want to think about all the rest of it. There was a lot there to imagine."

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