Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Thing for Bandits

True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey (Random House, 2001)
369 pp.

In my favourite Japanese restaurant on Baldwin St. over futomaki and tempura, I listen to three surprisingly attractive Star Trek fans rhapsodize over the series (I think to myself still?). Well, we all have our obsessions.

If you have followed this blog at all you will know that I am partial to outlaws; hence, my fascination with Peter Carey's book, a fictionalized autobiographical memoir of the life of Ned Kelly, arguably Australia's most famous "bushranger". The premise is that Ned Kelly is writing this memoir for his young daughter and to clear his name.

(Oh no - the "Star Trek" couple have exchanged gifts - the third wheel has now left - a snowman design on the package she gives him reminds him of a giant sperm "Oh, I'm soooo embarrassed - I had no idea!" she shrieks - clearly these people have not slept together yet. I began this book at Xmas and my reading has been interrupted by book club obligations; hence, the oddity of me starting the post in the winter and posting it in the spring.)

Back to Kelly ... almost 200 pages are devoted to the first 24 years of his life - a reminder that these fellows (vide Salvatore Giuliano in Sicily, Jesse James in the U.S.) start and end their careers at a very young age. Carey works hard at reconstructing Kelly's world - the child of hard scrabble Irish immigrants in Australia with a shiftless father who dies young and an attractive mother who serves as a magnet for every lowlife in the vicinity.

Carey builds a believable world in a semi-literate prose style in which Kelly grows into a determined and violent outlaw. To "save" Ned from the wrath of his new prospective father Bill Frost, his mother "apprentices" Ned to the notorious bushranger Harry Powers (also one of her lovers and a real life figure in Australian history) until he escapes back home. Ned is not welcome there by his "step-father" Frost who sporadically runs away and leaves Ned's mother to cope with a pregnancy and a passel of children on land that needs cultivation and maintenance but receives none from him.

On one of Bill's sprees, Ned follows him, shoots him, and leaves him for dead. This makes him vulnerable to the authorities and his fate is sealed.

As convincing as it is that Carey has done his homework in terms of historical accuracy and lovely fluency in this style of writing, it is not until some 240 pages into it that Ned Kelly truly begins his journey as an outlaw and that is too long a wait to sustain our interest (or at least my interest). And guess what - it does not end well.

Not surprisingly, the way Kelly is portrayed here, Ned is fixated on his mother which lends a disconcerting Oedipal twist to what transpires.

There are also odd bits thrown in which boggle the mind such as a tradition of dressing in women's clothing when protesting the abuse of authority (I think - it was all a bit confusing). Both Ned's father and brother and members of the gang indulge in same. I am unclear if this is a fictional fabrication or whether this has a real historical source.

The similarities between Ned Kelly, Giuliano and James are pronounced and were reinforced in my mind when I read this book.

The men became ensnared in banditry at a young age, usually because of a perceived injustice or slight by the government or police officials. They thrived in rural areas, gaining the trust of the people who strove to protect them from the authorities. They were seen as heroes by many. They passionately tried to defend themselves in the press but were not always granted a forum to do so. Kelly adored his mother (as did Giuliano, James was a devoted husband). All were extremely loyal to family, died violently at a young age, usually at the hands of traitors and were venerated after death.

Today we are not fascianted by those who shot or captured these bandits but the bandits themselves. What does that say about us? About me and my fascination?

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