Dialogue with a desperado

John Bemrose March 26 2001

Dialogue with a desperado

John Bemrose March 26 2001

Dialogue with a desperado


John Bemrose

In the boardroom of his Toronto publisher, novelist Peter Carey is wondering out loud where he might pose for a photograph. “We could trash the lobby and do it there,” he jokes, intimating, that as the author of a best-selling novel about the Australian bandit and hell-raiser Ned Kelly, he’d look appropriately roguish sitting among the ruins of expensive leather armchairs. The moment seems quintessential^ Australian. First there’s Careys accent, which, despite his 11 years of living in New York City, still makes “trash” sound like “tresh.” And then there’s the Aussie macho thing, whereby a direct and rough-hewn mateyness— with its intimations of physical prowess and even fighting ability—is de rigueur. Carey slopes off to the lobby, but the sound of breaking furniture is not heard. A few minutes later, the 58-yearold author returns to the Random House boardroom and folds his lanky, bespectacled frame into a comfortable chair. “That wasn’t so bad,” he drawls, as if he’d just had a molar extracted.

Propped up on the large table before him, like a little billboard for itself, is a copy True History of the Kelly ($34.95). Carey’s seven novel has quickly become one of the hits of the international publishing season, piling up admiring reviews and big sales across the English-speaking world. Literary success isn’t new to Carey: he took Britain’s esteemed Booker Prize for his 1988 novel Oscar and Lucinda, and has since won wide acclaim for sagas including The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (1994) and Jack Maggs (1998).

But he seems particularly proud of True History, which, in celebrating one of Australia’s greatest folk heroes, goes to the root of Carey’s own feelings about his country.

It might seem odd to Canadians— who, after all, have made a national icon

Novelist Peter Carey captures Aussie outlaw Ned Kelly

red-coated Mountie—that Carey insists on putting the outlaw Kelly on a higher pedestal than even Australia’s celebrated statesmen and police officers. He goes so far as to maintain that Ned Kelly’s short, violent career 120 years ago in the hills northwest of Melbourne is critical to the self-image of Australians, many of whom can trace their ancestry to convict ships and

like to identify with their more colourful desperadoes. “Kelly’s far more to us than a Jesse James,” Carey argues. “He’s more like our Thomas Jefferson.”

The comparison might seem farfetched, but it becomes comprehensible upon reading the novel. Carey has shaped a Ned Kelly whose outlaw vengefulness is ennobled by his sense of the historical injustices that poor Australians (especially those of Irish background, like himself) have suffered at the hands of the rich. The author is sensitive to any suggestion he has prettified Kelly (who did, after all, kill three policemen). Carey takes great pains to point out that there is good historical evidence to back his vision of a courteous Robin Hood-like figure who generally left the impecunious and innocent alone while proving a thorn in the side of the police and ruling class. To this day, Carey claims, Australians’ attitudes to Kelly split along class lines. “I would think that the people who call him simply a horse thief and a murderer are in

an absolute minority,” he says. “By and large, they’re the genteel types who care what the British think about them— the same people who won’t have Waltzing Matilda as their national song.”

Carey can get very passionate about Waltzing Matilda, the haunting ballad about the sheep thief—the “swag man”—who commits suicide rather than go to jail. “This song is who we are,” Carey maintains. “In a funny way, it’s our Statue of Liberty. When we sing it, we imaginatively inhabit the position of the swag man. We are the poor and dispossessed.”

Like Kelly, Carey is himself of Irish background, though by the time he was growing up in the small town of Bacchus Marsh outside of Melbourne, the Irishness of his family had been diluted to the occasional singing of sentimental ballads such as Two Shillelagh OSullivan. And though the legend of Ned Kelly was in the air, Carey played cowboys and Indians, just like kids in the spell of Hollywood movies everywhere. But the son of a car dealer was already soaking up the influences that would one day flower in True History. One was the peculiar twist rural Australians used to give to the English language. “I come into the room, and there he were,” Carey says, tossing out the sort of sentence he heard from some of his playmates.

Later, as a neophyte writer in his late teens, Carey ran into the same colourful style of speech in a famous missive written by Ned Kelly. Known as the Jerilderie Letter, after the remote town where Kelly composed it a year before his hanging in 1880, it is an eloquent attempt by the oudaw to justify his career. “I found this amazing, breathless, Irish language,” Carey recalls, “and I was so excited by it I typed out all 8,000 words and carried it around with me for years.” Most astoundingly for Carey, the language of the Jerilderie Letter seemed akin to some of the experiments with colloquial speech conducted by the novelists he was then reading, including Joyce, Beckett and Faulkner.

But it would be another several decades before these various influences would fuse in True History s com-

pellingly original poetry with its lilting, run-together sentences. Carey had other books to write while supporting himself by a career in advertising (he would eventually become a partner in his own firm). Eleven years ago, he moved to New York with his wife, theatre director Alison Summers, to take up a job teaching literature at New York University. The couple settled in Green-

‘Kelly’s far more to us than a Jesse James. He’s more like our Thomas Jefferson.’

wich Village, where they live with their two sons, Sam, 14, and Charlie, 10. And it was in New York, in the late1990s, that Carey first thought of writing a novel about Ned Kelly.

The catalyst was a Metropolitan Museum exhibit of paintings by the noted Australian artist Sidney Nolan. Carey had been much taken by these evocations of the Kelly legend when he’d seen them back in Australia. About to view them again in New York, he wondered nervously if they’d stand up in their new cultural context. But the paintings did-

n’t disappoint. “They looked fantastic,” he recalls. “In a city where the art world is so full of theory and bullshit and status, these paintings looked like things that just had to be made.” Carey began proudly introducing his downtown friends to the Met show, and while he was explaining the story of Ned Kelly to them, he realized he had stumbled on the subject of his next book.

True History of the Kelly Gang is the story of a young man who is drawn ever deeper into a life of violence, often against his own will. Carey has done a marvelous job of showing how Kelly’s inherent decency and breathtaking courage are not enough to protect him from his tragic fate—which closes around him when he and his gang are captured by a large government force. The novel also memorably evokes the Australian landscape, with its strange flora and fauna. At least once in the course of writing True History, Carey returned to the hill country north of Melbourne to make sure he had it right. On his last trip, he even lugged around an oversized copy of his typescript with lots of white space, so he could make corrections about such critical matters as horses and trees.

Carey relishes his journeys home, and feels he will never be able to write with deep conviction about any place but Australia: “As one of my students says, ‘When you change countries you lose your peripheral vision.’ ” And while he loves New York, there may be something about the American obsession with winning and winners that does not quite appeal to the swag-man-sympathizing side of him. “We like the defeats,” Carey says of his fellow Australians, and he is not being critical. “We like the follies, the failures, the losses. These are the things that tell us who we really are.” E3