The Ballad of Ned Kelly

Jonathan Levi is a contributing writer to Book Review

The novelist, like the cowboy, is a lover of wide empty spaces. Memoirists tend to fill gaps in personal history and understanding with slabs of vengeance. Historians plug the disjunctions between conflicting newspaper accounts and other documents with an amalgam of probability and logic. But the rootless novelist, tethered to reality only by language, is master in the land of the unknown. And the novelist who is fortunate enough to find a piece of history that is hammered from folklore and the popular imagination is truly the lord of the manor, cock of the walk. For he is the one free to strut into town with the badge of verisimilitude shining on his chest, shooting from the hip as long as his persuasion and prose don’t run out.

Australian novelist Peter Carey is as quick a word-slinger as any these days. For his last few novels, he has set up a literary bivouac in a 19th century that is close enough for sympathy and distant enough for fun. Between his Booker Prize-winning “Oscar and Lucinda” and his masterful retelling of Dickens’ “Great Expectations” in “Jack Maggs,” Carey has discovered that enough sage brush or marsh grass or eucalyptus has gone under the dam to give him the necessary elbow room for invention. In “True History of the Kelly Gang,” Carey takes on a piece of Australian history big enough to warrant a place in the opening ceremonies of the Sydney Olympics yet obscure enough in our northern climes to allow for a little free-wheeling rassling: the infamous 19th-century bushranger Edward Kelly.

Carey’s Ned Kelly is a true son of Australia, son of a man “ripped from his home in Tipperary and transported to the prisons of Van Diemen’s Land I do not know what was done to him he never spoke of it.” His mama is red-hot and two-fisted, a woman who fights for her husband and fights for her children against the oppression of the English. “She cried I would kill the b-----ds if I were a man Gold help me. She used many rough expressions I will not write them here. It were eff this and ess that and she would blow their adjectival brains out.”


Trying hard to live a good life, Ned, like our best tragedians, is forced by the law--in the form of the Protestant English overseers--to turn to a life of crime. In the course of a story of wombat holes and kangaroo roasts, of men dressed as women and girls hard as men, of bar fights and Banshees and babies whose eyes change color, Ned fights for the rights of his oppressed co-religionists, the Irish poor with more babies than rats and fewer rights than water. He writes his story on the run from the law in the last weeks of his life, with no time for commas or periods, desperate to narrate the true story to a daughter he will never see. But more important, Ned wants the larger audience, the Australian people, to learn the truth about his persecuted people.

“And here is the thing about them men they was Australians they knew full well the terror of the unyielding law the historic memory of UNFAIRNESS were in their blood and a man might be a bank clerk or an overseer he might never have been lagged for nothing but still he knew in his heart what it were to be forced to wear the white hood in prison he knew what it were to be lashed for looking a warder in the eye . . . I seen proof that if a man could tell his true history to Australians he might be believed it it’s the clearest sight I ever seen.”

But it’s not only the message of liberation that elevates the outlaw. What saves Carey’s Ned and raises him above the level of a Zane Grey cowboy or a Mel Gibson warrior is his poetry. “I was returned to the cells of Beechworth Prison and here the turnkeys stripped me and shore my cut and bleeding head while heaping me with threats & insults but even a green log will burn when the heat is high enough. Many is the night I have sat by the roaring river the rain never ending them logs so green bubbling and spitting blazing in a rage no rain can staunch.” Here is a man who has read nothing in his life except for the Bible, Shakespeare and “Lorna Doone,” which he has read three times. Yet on the basis of Kelly’s prose, perhaps there is some justice to instituting just such a simple curriculum in the schools and nothing more.

There is certainly justice in putting “True History of the Kelly Gang” on the bookshelf next to “Shane.” Carey’s pen writes with an ink that is two parts archaic and one part modern and colors a prose that rocks and cajoles the reader into a certainty that Ned Kelly is fit company not only for Jack Palance and Clint Eastwood but for Thomas Jefferson and perhaps even a bodhisattva. And that’s an effing accomplishment for any writer--even an adjectival Australian.