John Updike

Kelly Gang 
(John Updike, Matt Condon, Jane Rogers)

John Updike

New Yorker, January 22, 2001

Peter Carey, an Australian novelist now living in New York City, has turned his superb talents to the historical figure of Ned Kelly (1855-80). Robert Hughes, in “The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding,” called Kelly “the last and greatest of the folk-hero bushrangers.” Carey’s “True History of the Kelly Gang” (Knopf; $25) purports to transcribe documents, “thirteen parcels of stained and dog-eared papers,” in which the celebrated outlaw, on the run, set down for the benefit of his daughter (whom he was destined never to see) a heartfelt account and justification of his short and violent life. The ingenuity, empathy, and poetic ear that the novelist brings to his feat of imposture cannot be rated too high; hardly a colloquialism feels turned wrong, hardly a homely phrase feels rote, patronizing, or quaint.

Kelly is allowed, in this work of imagined authorship, to spell correctly, even tricky words like “embarrassment” and “eucalyptus,” though his writing preserves certain grammatical and orthographic peculiarities, such as “were” for “was” and “v.” for “very” and “wd.” for “would” and “1/2” for “half” no matter what the context-“1/2 mad,” “1/2 way along their length,” “broke in 1/2,” “her frightened 1/2 brother.” He even writes of a “1/4 horse.” Profane language, deplorably common in Ned Kelly’s circle, is fastidiously handled with omitted letters (“b–r”), phonetic initials (“effing,” “eff,” “ess”), and the comically frequent epithet “adjectival” (“I’m Harry Power you adjectival fool”). The poetry that Carey can coax from this lightly educated ruffian’s lightly punctuated prose gratifies us on every page. A newborn sister viewed by candlelight is captured thus:

My mother sat on the table holding your Aunty Grace to me. She were a little foal a calf her eyes were wide her newborn skin glistening white and bloody nothing bad had ever touched her.

When love comes, belatedly, into Ned’s life, his prose rises to the occasion like the Song of Songs:

Then we was playing what they call THE GAME you never knew so many hooks and buttons and sweet smelling things we took them off her one by one until she lay across her bed there were no sin for so did God make her skin so white her hair as black as night her eyes green and her lips smiling.

That this paragon of family feeling and amorous tenderness is also a killer, horse thief, and rageful rebel against the legal government of Australia is explained, in part, by the fact that he is Irish, heir to the woe the English have visited upon Ireland for centuries and are now visiting upon the Irish convicts in this continental penal colony. The outlaws of the American frontier also had their romantic appeal and symbolized for some the struggle of the poor against the mighty, but the situation was far more distinct in Australia, which England, under a policy of deportation that lasted from 1788 to 1868, used as a dumping ground for political prisoners and dissidents-Luddites, food rioters, Chartists, and, not least, agitators for Irish independence. By the early eighteen-hundreds, twenty-five per cent of the convicts in New South Wales were Irish, hauled there by transport ships that reported a death rate as high as thirty-seven per cent. The colony’s one convict rebellion-ill-organized and quickly quashed-was perpetrated by “the Croppies” (Irish) at Castle Hill, outside Sydney, in 1804. The Irish in America faced prejudice and poverty, to be sure, but the United States had staged a successful rebellion against English rule and was founded on idealistic Enlightenment principles. In Australia, rough Georgian usages prevailed; the English were the warders of the Irish, their floggers, their executioners, and, under the system of convict slavery that existed, their economic masters.

The convict escapee, called a “bolter,” became, in the great gray Australian bush, the bandit bushranger-in Hughes’s rousing phrases, “that primal figure of popular Australian culture, the bushranger-enemy of flogger, trap policeman and magistrate, the poor man’s violent friend, the emblem of freedom in a chained society.” The American outlaw, as dramatized in a thousand Westerns, tends to be personally rather than politically aggrieved; though he can be an embittered ex-Confederate soldier or a victim of the big cattle or railroad interests, he symbolizes an antisocial extreme of individualism, freedom gone mad. Michael Ondaatje’s prose poem “Billy the Kid” ends by portraying the outlaw as a juvenile madman. In contrast, the bushranger, according to Hughes, became an agent of national identity: “By taking to the bush, the convict left England and entered Australia. Popular sentiment would praise him for this transvaluation of the landscape . . . for another hundred and fifty years.” In the deep, mythy sea of Irish grievances old and new, a bushranger like Ned Kelly or his mentor, Harry Power, could long elude the reach of the English authorities.

Kelly tastes the English yoke at the start of the novel. His first memory, acquired at the age of three, is of his mother baking a cake for her incarcerated brother. The child accompanies her to the jail: “We arrived at the Beveridge Police Camp drenched to the bone and doubtless stank of poverty a strong odour about us like wet dogs and for this or other reasons we was excluded from the Sergeant’s room.” The Sergeant proves to be “a huge red jowled creature the Englishman. . . . I knew not his name only that he were the most powerful man I ever saw and he might destroy my mother if he so desired.” The officer tells her, “No cake shall go to the prisoner without me inspecting it 1st,” and with his “big soft white” hands, “his fingernails so clean they looked like they was washed in lye,” he digs in and breaks the cake into crumbs. At the lockup door, Kelly’s mother must kneel in the mud and push the broken cake through a two-inch gap at the bottom:

Tears poured down her handsome face as she forced the muddy mess of cake and muslin underneath the door. 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.

As the boy grows into his teens, brutalizing encounters with the authorities accumulate. The flavor of English-Irish relations is conveyed in a nuance when, greeted “Ned Kelly,” our hero responds, “Edward Rogers,” and observes Rogers to be “shocked that a mick had used his Christian name.” Of another man of English blood, Ben Gould, Kelly writes that “though he were not Irish he carried the same sort of fire I mean that flame the government of England lights in a poor man’s guts every time they make him wear the convict irons.”

In his criminal adulthood, he believes that the Kelly gang’s quasi-military exploits disprove the historic Australian taint: “We had showed the world what convict blood could do. We proved there were no taint we was of true bone blood and beauty born.” Kelly becomes, as his mission evolves, a pamphleteer, in a neo-Jeffersonian style: “I wished only to be a citizen I had tried to speak but the mongrels stole my tongue when I asked for justice they gave me none.” Yet the fugitive also, by the age of twenty-five, has developed a political realism: he comes to see that

the bush protected no one. It had been men who protected Harry and it were a man who betrayed him in the end. Harry always knew he must feed the poor he must poddy & flatter them he would be Rob Roy or Robin Hood. . . . The sad truth is the poor people’s love is cupboard love and all it took was GBP 500 for the police to be led directly to his secret door.

Carey is not a pamphleteer; rebellion against an evil system is not the burden of his story, as it is, say, of Styron’s “Confessions of Nat Turner” and Kleist’s “Michael Kohlhaas.” The injustices and brutalities of nineteenth-century Australia are the novel’s background rather than its topic; the foreground is occupied by the psychic evolution of Ned Kelly, from plucky oldest son struggling, with his feisty mother, to lift their fatherless family from the mire of poverty, into an increasingly canny and ambitious bushranger and from that into a dedicated autobiographer. His writing, carried to the verge of his last gun battle, forms his Achilles’ heel. The chapters of his “true history” have become so important to him that he is flattered into his doom by a crippled schoolteacher, Thomas Curnow, a hostage who is released by Kelly when he promises to take the manuscript home and work some small improvements on its parsing. Like many another writer, Kelly is betrayed by his editor.

The person who has at last taken the original texts in hand and organized this tidy book, with its scholarly headnotes, is left mysterious. The framework fails to tell us much that we would like to know. It is a matter of historical record that Kelly produced at least one extended document, the “Jerilderie Letter,” addressed to the people of Australia, in 1879; like many historical novels, Carey’s falls afoul of the reader’s wish to consult that record unembroidered by fancy. “True History of the Kelly Gang” is most moving and persuasive where, presumably, little record exists-Ned Kelly’s childhood and the strong impression his doughty, sexy, hard-riding mother made upon him.

Strong, but mixed. His Oedipal attachment is given a wry qualification on the first page:

Ellen Quinn were 18 yr. old she were dark haired and slender the prettiest figure on a horse he John Kelly ever saw but your grandma was like a snare laid out by God for Red Kelly. She were a Quinn and the police would never leave the Quinns alone.

The bibulous muddle of Quinn rascality never does permit Ned Kelly to fulfill his constructive and decent instincts; a series of shiftless lovers takes over the household, and when he is fourteen his mother pays her lover Harry Power fifteen pounds to take Ned on as an apprentice bushranger. There is a Beckett-like comedy to these scenes of the boy’s initiation into crime, as Harry Power, “with his little speech about how he were forced to crime I will not trouble you with it here,” pulls off one petty holdup after another, receiving only some odd change and disrespectful banter from the victims. Ned tells his disappointed mother, “The bushranging aint as profitable as you’d expect.” It is evidently a fact that Kelly at the height of his dangerous career offered to give himself up, to certain execution, if the authorities would release his mother from a three-year jail sentence. Carey fleshes out this filial love with many glimpses of a cabined intimacy in which “we was grown together like 2 branches of an old wisteria.” At the age of eleven, he assists his mother in a long night’s childbirth. At thirteen, after his father’s death releases her to claim some government land-to make what was called a “selection”-he sees her triumphantly mounted:

She wore no hat but her black hair were braided and her face flushed and her black eyes bright and she sat astride her handsome chestnut mare with her skirts rucked up to show her smooth bare knees. Land ho she cried we got our land.

He writes, “In a settler’s hut the smallest flutter of a mother’s eyelids are like a tin sheet rattling in the wind.”

Carey’s conjuration of this maternal immensity, even as childbearing and fickle love wear her down to just her “dear familiar voice both rough and tender at its center,” is matched by his evocation of the bush, the wilderness in its grandeur-“looking out across the mighty Great Divide I never seen this country before it were like a fairy story landscape the clear and windy skies was filled with diamonds the jagged black outlines of the ranges were a panorama”-and in its sinister gloom, stained by human violence:

On the ridges the mountain ash gleamed like saints against the massing clouds but down here the crows & currawongs was gloomy their cries dark with murder . . . on this day of horror when the shadows of the wattle was gluey with men’s blood.

Even with an endpaper map, it is not easy to follow the plot through the geography of rugged Victoria province, as Kelly gallops back and forth between Greta and Benalla and Wangaratta and Bullock Creek and Eleven Mile Creek. There are some intrusions of the supernatural-a banshee, prophetic dreams-that add to our disorientation. A theme of transvestism never quite earns the attention given to it; one edge of this curious territory touches homosexuality in the male world of bushranging and the other the old Irish custom of wearing women’s dresses when committing acts of anti-English terrorism. Ned’s mother and siblings come through clear enough, but his associates in the gang-Joe Byrne, Steve Hart, and Ned’s younger brother Dan-remain a bit dim, for all the pages we spend in their company. Joe is an opium addict with a harelip and hard eyes who possibly has a homosexual relationship with the turncoat Aaron Sherritt, whom he assassinates; but the narrator’s blind spots keep such interplay in low relief. Carey, with his resolute assumption of Ned’s twangy, self-centered voice, has damped one of his own strengths, a supple Dickensian gift for generating sharp-edged and colorful characters. His proclivity, in recent novels, for nineteenth-century settings is perhaps a way of gaining access to such characters; but they are gaudier by middle-class gaslight than by the smoky campfires of the Kelly gang. He confesses, in a postscript of acknowledgments, to field work in North Eastern Victoria and to feeling, at times, “lost or bewildered or simply forgetful of the facts.” Nothing gums up fiction like facts. Reality is rife with cameo characters, beclouded motives, circumstances too hedged and complicated to explain. Purported clippings from Australian newspapers are included toward the end of the novel, along with extensive quotation from Henry V’s inspirational “St. Crispian” speech in Shakespeare’s play; such textual nuggets fall like meteors from another planet, and pique our curiosity more than satisfy it.

Nevertheless, “True History of the Kelly Gang” has a bold, warm generosity; Carey animates the hearts and energies of Australians thrust to the bottom of the social pile, and bestows upon his legendary outlaw hero Everyman’s right to have his case heard.

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