The good, the bad, and the ugly in one man

Finally, a true history of the Kelly gang. No doubt, you've long suspected all those other tales about the outlaws who terrorized Australia in the 1870s were infected with English prejudice or Aussie pride. If you want the real scoop, you've got to read Ned Kelly's own words - God's honest truth - as brought to us in Peter Carey's avalanche of a novel.

"I know what it is to be raised on lies and silences," the legendary bushranger writes to a daughter he will never see. "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."

If that's not a gunshot of dramatic irony, what is? But Ned's breathless testimony quickly submerges all skepticism. You can't help but hope he'll somehow outrun the English landlords, the army of police, and even the record of history that insists he was hung in a Melbourne prison at the age of 26.

With this remarkable novel, Carey has raised a national legend to the level of an international myth. If the world thinks of America through the voice of Huck Finn, from now on they'll think of Australia through the testimony of Ned Kelly.

Born into a large family of Irish immigrants, Ned should have lived a life of quiet contentment. "I once imagined there were never a better place on earth than where I lived at Pleurisy Plains," he writes. "I could not conceive a better soil or prettier view or trees that did not grow crooked in the winds."

But Ned's good nature isn't enough to spare him from the assaults of English injustice. At school, he endures a barrage of dispiriting prejudice. The police harass his family relentlessly. "All my life all I wanted were a home," he sighs, but the authorities are determined to catch his relations stealing or lying or fighting or drinking - anything to put one of them away in the "gaol" and encourage the remaining clan to move out.

Ned struggles to be good, but his mother, a woman of monumental selfishness, apprentices him to a stagecoach thief. With Harry Power, he learns the finer points of robbing, intimidating, and hiding in the outback. "He were a dirty liar," Ned notes with his signature style. "It were his great hobby and profession he done it continuously like another man might pick his nose or carve faces on a bit of mallee root just to pass the time."

Despite his mother's treachery, Ned remains unfailingly committed to her with a kind of devotion even his friends in this pre-Freudian age think is peculiar. He works for her, brings lovers back to her, builds a new house for her, and defends her against a government determined to take her farm and split up her family.

After three years in jail, Ned emerges aflame with Irish pride. "I were already travelling full tilt towards the man I would become.... Injustice put me in a rage nothing would ease it but danger I now craved it like another man might lust for the raw burn of poteen." For 20 months, Ned and a small band of devoted friends manage to rob banks, elude the law, and help the poor a la Robin Hood. It's a series of crises told in a voice so full of passion and anger and innocence that it moves even beyond the boundaries of grammar.

His friends and young wife plead with him to flee to America, but he won't leave his mother in jail. And unlike Huck Finn, poor Ned Kelly can't light out for the territory. He's already there.

Beneath Ned's rousing proclamations of imminent victory, tragedy rises toward a crescendo of blood. Intoxicated by his own invulnerability, he gradually twists into the kind of dictator he once railed against. "I were the terror of the government being brung to life in the cauldron of the night," he writes. "I wished only to be a citizen I had tried to speak but the mongrels stole my tongue when I asked for justice they give me none."

In this bracing narrative, Carey has given Kelly back his tongue with a style that rips like a falling tree. The Australia-born author is something of a genius in these acts of literary ventriloquism. His last novel, "Jack Maggs," raced through the spectacular tale of Pip's benefactor, a minor character from Charles Dickens's "Great Expectations."

There can be no doubt this is the true history of Ned Kelly, but it's more complex than Ned realizes. In one of many moments of painful disillusionment, he writes, "Thus did the truth appear but in a lightning flash like a fish jumping at the evening rise and by the time I saw it there were nothing left but ripples." Carey is a man who isn't afraid to stand in water during lightning and tell us what it's like.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@ csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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