Book Review:-  True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

It’s perhaps the most significant lack of that three-letter article in recent literature. Carey in dispensing with ‘The’ in the title to his slippery, metafictional reworking of the Kelly history and mythology, demonstrates slyly his approach to that most overly lauded virtue – ‘truthfulness’. This avoidance of the definite in the title of the work, is echoed in the manner by which Carey constructs his narrative of the Kelly Gang in fragmentary form, gradually suggesting the ways in which Kelly’s supposed testament could have been altered, edited or generally influenced in an attempt to adjust the ‘reality’ of events – not to forget that the testament itself is Carey’s fictional creation.

The very fact that Carey chooses to focus his undoubted narrative talents on what, for an Australian at least, is a particularly familiar story suggests that Carey is perhaps concerned more with how the story has been told, than in presenting any definitive and accurate summation. A legendary figure such as Ned Kelly is too embroiled in the story of the birth of the Australian nation, for an accurate picture of the person to emerge. The author is aware of this and in subsuming his own voice in the carefully crafted nuances of Kelly’s intelligent, yet uneducated diction, Carey embraces the legend while diminishing the distance between us and the bushranger outlaw.

The novel is presented as a collection of journals – of various size, colour and paper quality – outlining the chronological history of Kelly from his early childhood, to the birth of his daughter and the Glenrowan massacre that saw the police finally bring him and his gang to justice. These journal accounts are presented as the direct voice of Kelly, the man’s testament to his daughter, written presumably as he awaits his execution. The fact that this work is written with his daughter in mind suggests why it is that Kelly erases the curse words and foul language from the text and why he also cloaks the carnal nature of many of the family shenanigans behind a number of sanitised euphemisms. Also present in these journals is a carefully cultivated persona of Kelly as an upright man of slightly muddied morality, who feels himself the victim of a pernicious and conspiratorial police state and to this end it often appears as if Kelly is either wilfully ignorant of events, or extremely slow to register them. The personality that comes off of the pages of these journal entries runs counter to the images presented by the media accounts that are dotted throughout the text and constitute a significant part of the final third of the book. Supposed source material is referenced in the prologue account of Ned Kelly’s last stand and in the return to this event at the book’s close. As well as that we also have the testimony of Thomas Curnow, which conflicts drastically with Kelly’s summation of events within the journals. There is also the insertion of Mary Hearn’s (Kelly’s lover and mother of his daughter) voice into the text in the form of annotations redressing the newspaper accounts of Kelly. Finally the way in which the journals are presented, the fact that they are not present more importantly, brings us back to the divining voice of Carey the author. The journals are artefacts described for us in short paragraphs under each successive chapter heading. The extraneous material has also been sourced from somewhere, or at least made to appear as if sourced and in closing Carey presents a series of acknowledgements thanking various academics, historians, friends and family for their contributions in the research carried out. Is Carey really trying to get at the truth, or is he indulging in a subtle deconstruction of the Kelly mythology which is so bound up in the birth of his homeland?

It is of great significance that Kelly, when not being a lawless brigand and general black sheep, is found to be writing his story. Early in the gang’s enforced outlaw status Kelly shows himself to be keenly aware of the importance of image and also the importance of telling a good story well. On at least three occasions he writes a testament only to place it into the hands of those who side with law and order. At the end of the text we are led to believe that Curnow is actually acting as editor of the grand Kelly opus, despite his role in the Glenrowan massacre. The presence of so many narrative attempts within the actual narrative itself allows Carey some leeway when it comes to presenting Kelly’s voice as intelligent and relatively articulate. The references to R.D. Blackmore’s Lorna Doone go some of the way to informing the texture of the exposition – an adventure story straight out of the early 19th Century. In many ways the book is in a similar vein to those other rabidly egocentric and equally serpentine first-person narratives, such as Banville’s The Book of Evidence, or Nabokov’s Pale Fire. In particular it shares with the latter a supposedly academic origin, that subtly reveals the massive discrepancies between the narrator’s account of things and those other accounts of things that the narrator in his arrogance refers to and dismisses. So convincing is Carey’s narrative ventriloquism that it is quite easy to accept Kelly at his supposed word. But are these really Kelly’s words? Are they not actually authorial approximations of Kelly? Just more layers of mythmaking, beneath which the person himself is left suffocating. After all, Kelly the person ceased the moment that Kelly the legend began. What is perhaps interesting is why it is that our various national cultures require the presence of figures like Kelly? Are nations built from these projections of lawlessness and moral reordering? Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men focuses on this notion, as does Scorsese’s movie Gangs of New York. Myths are cultivated from the excess of culture within a given society. Everything that authority wishes omitted from society is comfortably exercised in story, in narrative, in fable. The myths of the American West, the Australian Outback, Sherwood Forest and the lawless Highlands of Scotland are perhaps expressions of the initiatory impulse that a society in construction must excise to become governable.

This essay was originally published on June 23rd 2010 on my now defunct ‘Imposturous’ blog.