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The Wild Colonial Boy

True History of the Kelly Gang

Peter Carey
Knopf, 355 pp., $25.00

Does the man in the shiny blue suit still sing “The Wild Colonial Boy” at Irish weddings? Anyone who was a child in Ireland in the middle of the last century will remember this ubiquitous and somewhat mysterious figure. In those days, marriage in Ireland was for life, whether you liked it or not, divorce not being available. Weddings were important occasions, usually held in hotel ballrooms, with a hundred or more guests, an invariable meal of chicken and ham, much drinking, dancing, and singing. The man in the shiny blue suit, who wore a belt and suspenders, and whose provenance was uncertain—somebody’s uncle, perhaps?—would choose his moment with finesse, waiting for a lull in the proceedings to take his stance dramatically beside the piano and launch into his song. And as he sang, with forceful earnestness, his large pink face perspiring and his throat sinews straining, we guests would seem to feel the heat of the Antipodean plains, and smell the scents of strange, unheard-of fauna, and see the mighty figure of the Bushranger galloping toward us.

The Wild Colonial Boy of the song is Jack Duggan, who was “born and bred in Ireland, in a place called Castlemaine,” before he left for Australia. The more famous Ned Kelly, the protagonist of Peter Carey’s new novel, was a native Australian, born in 1855 in what was then the Colony of Victoria in the southeast corner of that vast continent. His father was an Irishman, a native of County Tipperary, who had got into trouble with the law and had been transported to Van Dieman’s land; his sentence served, he moved over to Australia and settled down to subsistence farming and horse-rearing in Victoria. John “Red” Kelly’s wife was Ellen née Quinn, “dark haired and slender the prettiest figure on a horse he ever saw,” Peter Carey writes, but from a family with a wild streak: “She were a Quinn and the police would never leave the Quinns alone.”

Young Ned, then, had rebellion and violence in his blood. After many clashes with the forces of authority, he took to the bush and became a full-time outlaw, gunning down policemen, and, with his brother and two friends, stealing horses and robbing banks all across Victoria and New South Wales. By the time of his capture at the age of twenty-five he was a legendary figure in Australia, hated and feared by the authorities and regarded by the poor Irish settlers as their very own Robin Hood. Despite the protection of his famous homemade iron armor, he was shot and wounded in a police siege in the town of Glenrowan, was captured and taken to Melbourne, where he was tried and eventually hanged. He was just short of his twenty-sixth birthday.

The story of Ned Kelly has haunted the imaginations of more than one artist. Most notably, the series of paintings on the Kelly theme by the late Sidney Nolan made the strangely fascinating image of the outlaw in his post-box headgear as familiar to gallery-goers around the world as Bacon’s screaming popes or Picasso’s screaming women. So apt is the subject for the Australian Peter Carey that one could almost have sworn that he had already written the “true history of the Kelly gang.” In an interview, he has said that this is “the book I’ve waited my whole life to write.” He has been fascinated by the story since seeing an exhibition of Sidney Nolan’s Kelly paintings in Melbourne in the early 1960s.

Later Carey read the “Jerilderie Letter,” Kelly’s 8,300-word attempt to vindicate himself and the others in his gang, written in the hope that “if my lips taught the public that men are made mad by bad treatment, then my life will not have been thrown away.” Kelly, although certainly not illiterate, was not an educated man, and the tone and rhythm of the letter, as well as its idiosyncratic syntax, were the inspiration for Carey’s first-person narrative, which begins as it will continue, a headlong and largely unpunctuated flow of speech addressed by Ned Kelly to the—fictional—baby daughter whom he will never see:

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.

The heart quails a little at the prospect of 350 large pages of this unrelenting voice; as Kelly admits to his daughter, “How queer and foreign it must seem to you and all the coarse words and cruelty which I now relate are far away in ancient time.” However, Carey is a skilled and cunning writer, and very soon one begins to hear clearly the plangent, rough music behind the staccato style.

In true Dickensian fashion—and Carey, whose previous novel, Jack Maggs, was a sort of postmodernist hommage to Great Expectations, is nothing if not a Dickensian writer—the book on the first page finds its narrator recalling a moment of illumination and warmth among the squalors of his early childhood:

My 1st memory is of Mother breaking eggs into a bowl and crying that Jimmy Quinn my 15 yr. old uncle were arrested by the traps. I don’t know where my daddy were that day nor my older sister Annie. I were 3 yr. old. While my mother cried I scraped the sweet yellow batter onto a spoon and ate it the roof were leaking above the camp oven each drop hissing as it hit.

Ellen Kelly is one of the most powerful and engaging characters in the book, a veritable Mother Courage who loves men and horses in equal measure. When John Kelly dies of an appalling dropsical ailment, Ellen keeps the half-wild family together by any means she can, including running an illegal shebeen and, for a time, it seems, by working as a prostitute. She also takes up with a number of men, including the egregious Bill Frost, and the “Yankee” George King, with whose expert assistance Ned effects his first serious piece of horse-stealing. Ellen has children by Frost and King, events which may startle the reader as much as they do her son, for so elemental and timeless is she in Carey’s portrait of her that we assume her to be well beyond child-bearing age, until we recollect that for much of the book Ned is a teenager, and his mother no more than in her thirties or very early forties. This odd archaizing effect may be a fault on Carey’s part, but then he is engaged in describing, indeed, in promoting, a myth, and in the world of myth, calendar years are of no consequence. Whatever her age, Ellen is a splendid figure, even if her splendors are presented to us through the not-unbiased eye of her adoring son, who speaks of

her great dark eyes bright and fierce as a native cat to defend her fatherless brood. In the stories she told us of the old country there was many such women they was queens they was hot blooded not careful they would fight a fight and take a king into their marriage bed.

Ellen does have a touch of the tragic queen to her, and provides the story with some of its most affecting moments, for instance at the end, when she is in prison, and manages to smuggle out a note to her son. The message in the note consists solely of Ned’s name, written in “the slow hand of an individual not fully confident of their education.” Ned is of course stricken with sorrow and anger. “I seen how Ellen Kelly had secretly laboured upon that scrap and it pierced my heart that NED KELLY should serve not only as name & address but must carry all the weight of shame and subjugation teeming in her breast.”

In true mythic fashion, Ned’s childhood is overshadowed by dark tales of blood and vengeance and betrayal. A policeman who comes to court Ellen Quinn while her husband is away sheep-shearing in another part of the country tells the tale of A Certain Man, as he calls him, who during the land wars in his native Tipperary conspired with other disaffected tenants to burn down the house of a farmer against whom he had a grudge, slaughtering the man and his family, and who later betrayed his fellow conspirators in order to save his own skin, securing a sentence of transportation rather than hanging. Although still a child, Ned understands that A Certain Man is his father.

Later the same policeman tells the boy that John Kelly has been seen going about the countryside wearing a woman’s dress, and indeed Ned and his sister later unearth a metal trunk buried near the house which contains a frock matching the policeman’s description. This odd and shaming accusation is illuminated much later in the book, when Mary Hearn, Ned’s girl, and the mother-to-be of his daughter, recounts a horrifying anecdote from the old country about the disemboweling of a prize race horse by the Molly Maguires, a real-life secret brotherhood of Irish land agitators whose distinctive method of disguise when they were about their sinister business of violence and destruction was to dress themselves in women’s clothes.

The function and significance of this dress motif as it surfaces here and there in the book are uncertain. There is of course the implication—Ned calls it a “slander”—that John Kelly may be a transvestite or even a homosexual, but that theme is not developed; neither are the faint, teasing accusations that are made by some of Ned’s associates to the effect that his lifelong devotion to his mother may have incestuous undertones. It is not that one would want particularly for these rather incongruous themes to be followed up, and the book does not suffer by the fact that they are not; rather, one wonders what their function was intended to be in the first place.

In the early pages of the book the gaudy, primitive life of these Irish deportees and their unruly offspring is colorfully portrayed. We feel the pathos of their predicament, but also admire their toughness and resilience, their harsh gaiety. Ned’s mother’s people, the Quinns, were

Irish and therefore drunk with land and fancy horses all the old hardships soon to be forgotten. The Quinn women come visiting with soda bread and surveyor’s maps the men was tall and reckless they cursed and sang they fought anyone they did not like and rode thoroughbreds they could not afford to buy.

Ned first breaks the law when as a boy he steals a heifer and butchers it for the family table. The police accuse his father of the deed, and refuse to believe Ned when he insists that it was he who killed the beast. The father is put in the stockade in solitary confinement, an experience from which he does not recover, and which probably hurries on his early death. Ned feels guilty, of course, but it is still his mother who takes the greatest part of his attention. His anguished love for her survives the revelation that in secret she has apprenticed him to one Harry Power, famous outlaw and another of her admirers. Power is, as you would expect, a larger-than-life creation, by turns brutal, fond, and funny, and one misses him when he drifts out of the story halfway through. When young Ned temporarily escapes Power’s clutches he runs home to the maternal hearth, only to be cruelly disillusioned. His mother tells him: “You can’t come home I paid the b–-r 15 quid to take you on,” and Ned sees himself for a moment thrust out into the cold of the third-person:

The mother and the son stood separate in the middle of the home paddock the chooks all droopy and muddy the pigs with their ribcages showing through their suits the waters of the Eleven Mile already receding leaving the spent and withered oats lying in the yellow mud. The son felt himself a mighty fool he’d been bought and sold like carrion.

Later on in the story Ellen Kelly is sent to jail on trumped-up charges, and Ned, an outlaw now, becomes almost demented from anger and grief and guilt. His determination to get her released, and to vindicate himself before the public, are the twin forces that drive him and his gang to ever more daring escapades of horse rustling and bank raiding. His pregnant lover, Mary Hearn, begs him to use the proceeds of his crimes to flee with her to America, but he cannot leave the land in which his mother is imprisoned.

Mary Hearn is the least convincing character in the story; no doubt Peter Carey had to invent her in order to give Ned the daughter to whom he might address his narrative. However, Mary is little more than a pretty presence in the background of the tale, and in her goodness and demure compliance is at times as irritating as Vanity Fair‘s Amelia Sedley. True, she stops being compliant, when, in the end, having had enough of Ned and his Ma, she sorrowfully departs for San Francisco, carrying her newborn baby.

Far more vivid are the portraits of the other members of the Kelly gang: Ned’s brother, the hot-headed Dan; Steve Hart, who like Ned’s father has a penchant for dressing up in women’s frocks; and the dark, doomed Joe Byrne, with his addiction to opium, or “oyouknow,” as he calls it, and his sinister devotion to his treacherous friend Aaron Sherritt, who plays some part in bringing destruction down upon the gang. The tale is packed with action and incident, and has all the garish colors of the Outback itself. Yet at the end, as the dust settles and the heroes die, a faint cloud of dissatisfaction remains hovering over the scene.

In his acknowledgments, Carey speaks of the novel as “a work that at times threatened to swamp and drown me,” and sometimes the narrative does come dangerously close to foundering under the weight of all that the author feels he must pile upon it. The novelist burrows into history books at his peril, as is evidenced by, for example, Flaubert’s Salammbô and even Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. Facts, for the novelist, have a fascinatingly solid feel to them, but too many facts can, indeed, swamp and drown a fiction. Peter Carey is a great-hearted writer, with an eye and an appetite for the vagaries and eccentricities of human beings as they struggle to make their way through the world’s difficulties. True History of the Kelly Gang might have been better if he had forgotten his duty to the facts and simply played with the form, as he did to such a magical effect in Jack Maggs, with its slyly subversive conceits, and, especially, in the crystalline Oscar and Lucinda, which won him the Booker Prize. After all, what is art but transcendent play? And even a national monument must put up with frolicsome pigeons.

Perhaps, too, it was unwise of him to burden himself with a narrative style which will not allow for enough of the nuances of reticence and revelation, of speculation and suggestion—in short, of psychological insight—that are the mainstays of his brand of fiction. The tone never falters, and this is a considerable achievement given the breadth of the book, yet there are passages when the relentless, unpunctuated periods of the prose grind with awful monotony in the reader’s ear. The trouble with a primitive technique is that it makes for works that are all foreground, sacrificing depth for spectacle, so that the grass is as vivid as the tiger that lurks in it. Ned Kelly, or at least Carey’s version of him, is a complex and subtle character, but all too often his complexity and subtlety are coarsened by the unvarying, hectoring voice in which he is condemned to speak.

Ned Kelly makes a sharp distinction between the situation and attitudes of first-generation Australians, of which he is one, and of those such as “our brave parents” who were “ripped from Ireland like teeth from the mouth of their own history and every dear familiar thing had been abandoned on the docks of Cork or Galway or Dublin.” In passages such as this can be heard the anger of a people whose past is too recent and painful to support any firm sense of themselves, and what they are, and what they came from. Ned laments the dying of the old ways, the relinquishing of a rich and sustaining tradition: “That is the agony of the Great Transportation that our parents would rather forget what come before so we currency lads is left alone ignorant as tadpoles spawned in puddles on the moon.”

When True History of the Kelly Gang was published in Australia it provoked a public controversy, with many critics demanding of Carey what, in the book, the man who finally betrays Kelly asks rhetorically of his fellow Australians: “What is wrong with us? Do we not have a Jefferson? A Disraeli? Might we not find someone better to admire than a horse-thief and a murderer? Must we always make such an embarrassing spectacle of ourselves?” Carey knows the answer, and gives it on every stirring page of this novel. His Ned Kelly is no saint—at one point it occurs to him, unchivalrous Robin Hood that he is, that since the price on the Kelly Gang’s heads is £800, he can insure himself and his comrades against betrayal by giving away £8,000 to the poor—but he is a tragic figure, driven by love and outrage and the desire for justice. Even if Australian critics are ashamed of Ned Kelly, they can take nothing but pride in Peter Carey.

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