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True History of the Kelly Gang

Peter Carey

True History of the Kelly Gang

Author:Peter Carey

By John Sewell | Posted 2/7/2001

The popular genre of historically based adventure novels will surely receive a shot in the arm from the release of Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang. The first hardcover pressing of 70,000 copies shows that the folks at Knopf expect a bestseller. And they're probably right.

The novel is based on the life of bushranger (the Australian term for a highwayman) Ned Kelly. Carey presents the story as a series of letters written by Kelly to his daughter. The first-person letters are rife with Australian slang, off-kilter subject-verb disagreements, grammatical errors, and a surprising aversion to gutter language. Carey creates an unexpectedly poetic outlaw jargon comparable to that of the droogs in Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange.

An early passage describing the anger of Kelly's mother toward Australian police who have jailed her husband exemplifies Carey's oddly endearing cadence:

She cried I would kill the B-----ds if I were a man God help me. She used many rough expressions I will not write them here. It were eff this and ess that and she would blow their adjectival brains out.

Kelly comes from an impoverished brood of Irish immigrants. Their poverty and the brand of justice doled out by Australian police build in him a resentment of authority that facilitates his entry into the outlaw life. By the age of 16, he has jumped headfirst into a career in crime--he's an accomplice to several robberies, he steals horses, and he shoots one of his mother's suitors (who later resurfaces as a nemesis).

Once the reader is accustomed to the peculiarities of the text, True History becomes a fast and furious read. Kelly's wild life of robberies, random violence, and the occasional romantic tryst build to a legend as his litany of offenses grows. The action reaches a predictable crescendo as he and his crew graduate from petty crime to bank robbery and become the target of a massive manhunt.

Like the big-dollar Hollywood adventure it will no doubt shortly become, True History is best appreciated as skillfully rendered entertainment rather than as great art. Carey manages to hold the reader's attention and the verbal eccentricities add much-needed color; if the book fails to reveal anything about the human condition, it's still good fun.

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