“The good ended happily and the bad unhappily,” Miss Prism informs her listeners. “That is what fiction means.” Perhaps because that used to be so true, it nowadays isn’t. The morality of most serious contemporary fiction is ambiguous, or elusive, or reliant on heavily discounting the views of an unreliable narrator. In literary fiction today you have to figure out who the good and the bad people are for yourself. One of the reasons for the wide appeal of Peter Carey’s work is that it isn’t like that: he always draws up a set of moral accounts for the reader. His last novel, True History of the Kelly Gang, has sold two million copies worldwide, making it one of the most successful literary novels in years, as well as one of the best. One of the reasons for its power is that it is so uncompromisingly on Kelly’s side. The portrait of the outlaw has life and color and humor and tragedy and variety of tone, but it is not morally ambivalent: Carey sees Kelly as a good man and his enemies as bad, and the reader is not invited to disagree.
Ned Kelly has always been a totemic figure in the ongoing arguments over Australian identity. What story is told about him depends on who is telling the story: he is a kind of Australian Rorschach test. He has been seen as a romantic outlaw, as a coldhearted thief and murderer, as a prototypical revolutionary or displaced Irish insurgent, as an Australian Robin Hood—a classic “larrikin,” imbued with “authentically ‘Australian’ characteristics of non-conformism, irreverence, impudence”—or as a predatory fantasist. The inspired choice made by Carey in his novel is to make Kelly himself tell his story. Carey stresses Kelly’s Irishness and family feeling, and also the extent of the social injustice prevailing in the colony of Victoria, where Kelly lived and stole and died; most of all, though, he does an utterly persuasive job of imagining Kelly’s voice:
Never having been a thief before I were surprised to discover what a mighty pleasure stealing from the rich could be. When it come the squatters’ turn to suffer they could not bear their punishment they was immediately screaming like stuck pigs calling public meeting about the outrage while all the time I lived on their back door more than once sitting on my horse to watch McBean eat tea & when his dogs was going wild he could do no more than stare out into the wild colonial dark. He did not own that country he never could.
Carey’s basic procedure in True History is to use his imagination to flesh out the skeleton of Kelly’s known story. A reader who was unfamiliar with its outline could acquire it from the novel. Even the voice of the book is a kind of extrapolation, drawing on a manifesto-cum-apologia of Kelly’s known as the Jerilderie letter. When I heard that Carey …