Few novelists are more artistically protean than the Australian-born Peter Carey, who has written fantasy (“The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith”), domestic realism (“Bliss”), picaresque adventure (“Illywacker”) and suburban gothic (“The Tax Inspector”), as well as the more or less uncategorizable Booker Prize-winning “Oscar and Lucinda.” So anyone who fell in love with his last novel, the Dickensian “Jack Maggs,” shouldn’t reach for the new one, “True History of the Kelly Gang,” expecting more of the same. This time around, Carey has written a western, although one thing “True History” does share with all his other books is its Australian heart.
“True History” presents itself as a collection of autobiographical documents, mostly written by Ned Kelly, a legendary outlaw who, with his brother and two friends, briefly had the run of northeast Victoria and a chunk of New South Wales at the end of the 19th century. Ned addresses his story to his daughter, whom he was never to meet, so that she will not have to know “what it is to be raised on lies and silences.” The peculiar style Carey uses to re-create Ned’s voice is crude without the sacrifice of eloquence; it comes across as the heartfelt expression of an intelligent, reflective but indifferently educated man. A sample: “Your grandfather were a quiet and secret man he had been ripped from his home in Tipperary and transported to the prisons of Van Diemen’s Land I do not know what was done to him he never spoke of it.” It takes a page or two to adjust to the way the sentences run together, but only that long, and there’s something organic to the way they’re compounded, as if they were measured in ideas and breath, not the more pedestrian notion of “complete thoughts.”
“I wished only to be a citizen,” writes Ned, and the bulk of the book consists of how circumstances drove him inexorably toward bushranging despite his preference for the quiet life of a farmer. As the son of a former convict and — just as bad, it seems in the eyes of the local police — of Irish descent, Ned occupied a social stratum so low only the Aborigines were worse off. (“True History of the Kelly Gang” serves as yet another reminder of why so many of the world’s people hate the British.) He wasn’t so much born to lose as forced to, and conspired against by one malevolent constable, “squatter” (slang for landlord) and magistrate after another (not to mention a few no-good relatives), he finds his best-laid plans to earn a quiet, modest living on a piece of creek land with his widowed mother and siblings going awry again and again.
Life in the colony makes failings out of Ned’s virtues: his devotion to his proud but romantically unwise ma; his refusal to become that creature the Irish despise most, an informer; his willingness to believe, despite a life of betrayals, that people can be trusted. He finds a few spots of ferocious loyalty and love in his life, but not as many as he so clearly deserves, and eventually he winds up on the lam, shooting a policeman and becoming, for a few glorious months, the hero of the people. They hide and feed and otherwise support Ned and his “gang” because “we was them and they was us and 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,” and because “they was Australians they knew full well the terror of the unyielding law the historic memory of UNFAIRNESS were in their blood.”
Australians haven’t forgotten him either; in his homeland the real Ned Kelly became a legend who is, as the novel’s publisher puts it, “part Jesse James, part Nat Turner” (although he was also slandered as thuggish brute). But there’s nothing particularly revisionist about Carey’s “western,” at least not in the way of so many contemporary American novels that try to pry the romantic facade from the history of our frontier. “True History” feels raw, passionate and unqualified, and yet it’s also surprisingly free of romanticism. Perhaps that’s because Carey’s describing a man who tried to be a rugged individualist, only to find his final glory in the embrace of the class that he ultimately found inescapable. This novel is a cry out against a history of crushing injustice.
So for all that it resembles an American western, “True History” is actually the opposite, for revisionist or not, a western is always the story of a man or men, while this is the story of a people. With his endlessly interesting and unpredictable ingenuity, Carey continues to show readers that there’s an Australian way to tell every story, and by the time he’s done telling it, we see even the most familiar tales in a whole new light.