Starting a list such as this has begun to feel like Sufjan Stevens and his quest to write an album about every U.S. state. I read recently that he has given up on the task, deciding it was too ridiculous in scope. But I have kept the faith. Now that fantasy football has ended, I decided to face this project head-on. As I talked about in last week’s resolution piece, attainable goals are important to maintain focus and momentum.
To keep the momentum going from my New Year’s Eve celebration fueled by a 25-year-old rye, here is book number 97, Peter Carey’s “True History of the Kelly Gang.” As you can imagine this is a book about Ned Kelly, the infamous rustler of the Australia Outback.
There is a bit of back story to the affinity I have for this book. I had never been on a plane before I left for Australia the first time way back in 1995. I had talked my parents into a study abroad program, assuring them the cost would not be different from regular tuition.[ref]I learned more in that five months than I did in all four years of college combined. But that’s a rant for a different kettle of fish.[/ref] Since my first journey there I’ve been back to Australia twice. The place, especially its history, fascinates me—I can’t say why exactly. Maybe it was the first foreign environment I ever experienced and so I was most curious about it.
I’ve read a good stack of history books about Australia, the best being “The Fatal Shore” by Robert Hughes. Everyone knows about the country’s birth as a convict nation. The debauchery and madness which marked the first 50 years of the country could curl anyone’s hair—revolts and escapes and lawlessness make for interesting reading. One of my favorite stories about the Australian colony was penned by Mark Twain. It’s entitled “Cecil Rhodes’ Shark and his First Fortune”—and you can read it here if you’re interested.[ref]The link is from chapter 13 of the book entitled “Following the Equator,” which is, like most things Twain wrote, delightfully funny and insightful and each chapter opens with one of his incredible axioms.[/ref]
Logically my journey from enjoying history books led to my discovery of fictional works about Australia. I read Australian novelist’s Patrick White’s novel “Voss” and D.H. Lawrence’s “Kangaroo.” I can’t admit to enjoying the former, but the latter, which chronicles the two weeks Lawrence spent in Australia, is actually quite entertaining. The short stories of Henry Lawson are realistic, straight-forward, and give a glimpse into the brutal and harsh living conditions of the Outback.
It’s quite obvious that Carey knew Lawson’s work well. Elements of Lawson’s writing—simple story-telling that highlights the savage landscape—is at the core of “True History of the Kelly Gang.” What’s amazing is that since Lawson there have been no shortage of works—both in print and onscreen—that have tried to capture the nearly barbarous conditions and the courage it took to survive in such an environment.
It’s exhausting to think how many books and movies have been produced about Ned Kelly.[ref]I prefer Heath Ledger to Mick Jagger as Ned, but that’s just my opinion.[/ref] Certainly it’s no surprise the attention he and others like him have garnered, since bushrangers—equivalent to our wild west heroes in the United States—are some of the most interesting characters in Australian history. With so many works written on Kelly— the story known, the ending known—it’s easy to get lost among all of the titles.[ref]As a side note, one of the best films, in my opinion, about the first years in the Australian Outback would be Nick Cave’s “The Proposition.” It’s a haunting film and takes violence to Tarantinan levels—I made that adjectival tribute up.[/ref]
What makes Carey’s work, for me, the best among all of the pieces I’ve read, is the way he wrote it. Carey wrote in first person, making Ned his narrator in what is essentially the outlaw’s (fictitious) autobiography. Carey used the only known piece of Kelly writing, the Jerilderie Letter, to influence his own style. There are no commas in the book and it is written in vernacular consistent with the times. Carey substituted curse words for the word “adjectival” or “effing,” used in case it is ever to be read by Kelly’s fictional daughter.[ref]The technique of substituting these words for curses was used by Lawson in many of his short stories.[/ref] Such techniques, along with the use of Irish and Outback slang, prove how learned Carey is and the incredible amount of research which went into writing the novel.
It’s easy to say that Carey shouldn’t be lauded for his book; after all, Kelly’s story, one of the greatest in Australian history—if not the world—was already written for him. How hard is it to write a story already written? You could probably ask the same of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” But with each turn of the page, I remember thinking it had to have been written by Ned himself. The authenticity of the language and the passion of the narrator jump off the page.
Carey takes the liberty of giving Ned a daughter, the very reason he’s “writing” his own history and takes the reader from his childhood—there are certainly Oedipal undertones, as many stories about Ned seem to employ—all the way to Glenrowan and the famous shootout, when Ned used his armour and slotted helmet.[ref]If you haven’t seen the movie “Kenny,” a mockumentary about a porta potty manager based in Melbourne, do so as soon as possible. One of my favorite quotes is when Kenny says of a hotel room door key (paraphrased), “Stick your key right into Ned Kelly’s helmet there.” Priceless and proves how widespread and well-known Ned’s story really is.[/ref] There are plenty of references to his Irish heritage and Carey adds elements of Irish folklore that add to the mystique of the hero.
Even if you know the story backwards and forwards, this book will surprise you. I’ve never read another title by Carey. This book is so well done and encapsulates everything beautiful and vicious about Australia as a nation, I haven’t found the need to read a book about the country since. I dare you to read this book and not want to ride bareback over the burnt red sand of Australia’s interior, searching for freedom and a respite from the long arm of the law. The man wanted nothing more than to do as he wished. If you can’t get behind that, you shouldn’t be allowed to read anyway.
“I begun again they could not prevent it. I were the terror of the government being brung to life in the cauldron of the night.”