Sympathy for An Outlaw

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Australian Peter Carey, 57, has built a distinguished career out of offbeat, risk-taking novels. His Oscar and Lucinda (1988), which won Britain's Booker Prize, portrayed two improbable 19th century Aussie dreamers obsessed with the notion of hauling a glass church across the outback. In Jack Maggs (1998), Carey produced an engaging variation on Dickens' Great Expectations. And he is up to new tricks in True History of the Kelly Gang (Knopf; 352 pages; $25), which purports to be a first-person narrative written by Ned Kelly, the outlaw who terrorized and enchanted Australians during the 1870s and who remains something of a national hero and legend.

The actual Ned Kelly, who was hanged for murder in 1880, left behind some papers, and Carey has seamlessly grafted his fictional additions onto the existing historical records. But the power and charm of True History arise not from fidelity to facts but rather from the voice Carey invents for Ned Kelly, the son of Irish parents (his father a transported criminal), barely educated by a British schoolmaster who thought that "all micks was a notch beneath the cattle." Like most criminals, Ned believes he is innocent, that whatever wrongs he committed were acts of self-defense against an unjust society bent on crushing him and all like him, the rootless poor robbed of their past. "That is the agony of the Great Transportation," he muses, "that our parents would rather forget what come before so we currency lads is left alone ignorant as tadpoles spawned in puddles on the moon."

It is a well-worn self-justification, but Ned somehow makes it seem fresh and persuasive. What chance does he have, apprenticed as a boy by his desperate mother to a "bushranger," i.e., highway robber, an assistant in crimes before he is old enough to shave? After he serves time in prison and tries to lead an honest life raising horses, the "traps"--police constables--keep persecuting and trumping up charges against him. Finally, he learns, they plan to track down and kill him. Ned, his younger brother Dan and two confederates ambush the ambushers and strike first: "Events continued without relent Dear God Jesus it were a sorry day."

Ned addresses his account to the infant daughter he has not yet seen and probably, he suspects, never will. That explains the occasional prudishness of his language, as in this rendering of one of his mother's outbursts: "It were eff this and ess that and she would blow their adjectival brains out." Ned's bursts of poetry are suitable for all ages: "At night every river has a secret twin a ghost of air washing above the living water down towards the sea." Or "A fright of blood red parrots flared & swept through the khaki forest." Ned apologizes for his unconventional style, saying, "I never learned my parsing." His readers will acquit him of that charge.