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True History of the Kelly Gang: A Novel Paperback – December 4, 2001
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“A spectacular feat of imagination.”—The Boston Globe
“Vastly entertaining…. Triumphantly eclectic, as if Huck Finn and Shakespeare had joined forces to prettify the legend of Jesse James.”—The New York Times
“The ingenuity, empathy, and poetic ear that the novelist brings to his feat of imposture cannot be rated too high.”—John Updike, The New Yorker
“Carey succeeds in creating an account that not only feels authentic but also passes as a serious novel and solid, old-fashioned ‘entertainment.’ A big, meaty novel, blending Dickens and Cormac McCarthy with a distinctly
Australian strain of melancholy.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Abravura performance…. Rewards the persistent reader with a powerful emotional experience.”—The Wall Street Journal
“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.”—Los Angeles Times
“The power and charm of [this book] arise not from fidelity to facts but rather from the voice Carey invents for Ned Kelly….”—Time
“So adroit that you never doubt it’s Kelly’s own words you’re reading in the headlong, action-packed story.”—Newsweek
“This novel is worth our best attention.”—The Washington Post Book World
“An avalanche of a novel…. Cary has raised a national legend to the level of an international myth.”—Christian Science Monitor
“Packed with incident, alive with comedy and pathos . . . contains pretty much everything you could ask of a novel.” —The New York Times Book Review
“The ingenuity, empathy, and poetic ear that the novelist brings to his feat of imposture cannot be rated too high.” —John Updike, The New Yorker
“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.” —Los Angeles Times
From the Inside Flap
"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."
In True History of the Kelly Gang," the legendary Ned Kelly speaks for himself, scribbling his narrative on errant scraps of paper in semiliterate but magically descriptive prose as he flees from the police. To his pursuers, Kelly is nothing but a monstrous criminal, a thief and a murderer. To his own people, the lowly class of ordinary Australians, the bushranger is a hero, defying the authority of the English to direct their lives. Indentured by his bootlegger mother to a famous horse thief (who was also her lover), Ned saw his first prison cell at 15 and by the age of 26 had become the most wanted man in the wild colony of Victoria, taking over whole towns and defying the law until he was finally captured and hanged. Here is a classic outlaw tale, made alive by the skill of a great novelist."
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Ned Kelly is to Australia what Jesse James is to the United States and, I suppose, what Robin Hood is to England. He was an outlaw or bushranger, who lived from 1854 to 1880. The novel is in the form of an autobiography, written by Kelly so that his daughter (whom, it turns out, he never saw) would know the story of his life. It is written in thirteen installments, collected in separate parcels deposited (according to the novel's conceit) in the Melbourne Public Library. Kelly wrote his story over the last year of his life as he and his gang (composed of his brother Dan and two other alienated Irishmen) lived in the bush off the proceeds of bank robberies and with the sympathetic help of agrarian locals, all the while dodging an army of "traps" (constables).
The style is that of a poorly educated man of the bush. There are no commas or quotation marks, and the use of periods is indifferent. Hence, sentences are crammed together in run-on fashion. At times, it can be challenging to track, but one gets used to it. There is a large measure of profanity, although, presumably for the tender ears of his daughter, Kelly censors it with blank spaces and the use of "adjectival" in lieu of the coarse and common word beginning with the letter "f".
Was Ned Kelly a sociopathic reprobate? (As was, based on my understanding, Jesse James.) Or did his life experiences as Irish rubbish, "a notch beneath the cattle", turn him, ineluctably, into a horse thief, bank robber, and police killer? According to the novel, the latter is definitely the case. Peter Carey's Ned Kelly is noble and generous and intensely loyal and devoted to his family, especially his mother. If I have any reservation, it is that this fictional Ned Kelly is simply too good.
Still, Carey's picture of the colonial Australia that abused Ned Kelly and the dirt poor Irish -- many of them, like Ned, descendants of convicts exiled to New South Wales -- is instructive . . . and disturbing. As a historical portrayal of brutal, at times Kafkaesque, authoritarian rule by the establishment, TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG is well worth reading (in addition to the rip-roaring story).
This punctuation-free run-on style is splendidly vigorous, but it is not entirely Carey's invention. We have one example of Kelly's own voice from the famous "Jerilderie Letter" that he dictated in 1879 in an attempt to justify himself. The first sentence after the salutation establishes the tone for the rest: "In or about the spring of 1870 the ground was very soft a hawker named Mr Gould got his waggon bogged between Greta and my mother's house on the eleven mile creek, the ground was that rotten it would bog a duck in places so Mr. Gould had abandon his waggon for fear of loosing his horses in the spewy ground." So Carey's achievement is less in inventing this style than in extending it for 360 pages, including passages of racy ribaldry that go way beyond the original, such as when Ned as a boy describes his mother's anger: "She cried I would kill the b-----ds if I were a man God 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." The initial difficulty of this writing soon passes off, making one's reading something like an exhilarating ride on a wild horse. [It is interesting that fellow-Australian Roger McDonald used a very similar archaic language two years previously for parts of his wonderful MR. DARWIN'S SHOOTER.]
Ned is a very sympathetic character, partly on account of his humor, honesty, and moral scruples, partly because the cards are so clearly stacked against him. Carey presents Queensland in the 1870s as an oligarchy in which a few rich settlers manipulate the laws with the aid of a corrupt police force in order to squeeze the former convicts off the poor plots of land that have been allotted to them. There is one especially egregious scene in which Ned, on his second run-in with the police, is brought to the Commissioner's mansion in Melbourne as a kind of after-dinner entertainment. Approve or not of his means (which eventually involved the killing of policemen), it is hard to question Kelly's fight for equality and easy to see how he could have become a folk hero to an underclass population.
Although I am giving this novel five stars for its brilliance, empathy, and sense of character and place, I must admit to not enjoying it quite as much as I thought I would at the beginning. I think this is because a mere string of events eventually wears thin as the organizing principle of a novel, whether it be Carey's Ned Kelly or Fielding's Tom Jones. I think Carey intended to tie it together with an overarching moral paradox: that as Ned's fight against authority becomes less for himself alone, his means of achieving it escalate in criminality. But this only comes into focus in the last third of the book, but which time it has become a little hard to keep up with all the characters involved, and their often changing allegiances. This slight let-down at the end of the book is something I also felt with Carey's previous Booker winner, OSCAR AND LUCINDA. It is a pity, because he really is a remarkable author.