AN OUTLAW DOWN UNDER

It's a tricky business, writing a novel about a real person, dead or alive, and trickier still when you make that character the narrator. So the best measure of Peter Carey's new novel's excellence is that you don't worry about those questions for more than a page once you begin "True History of the Kelly Gang," a fictional autobiography of the 19th-century Australian outlaw Ned Kelly. This act of literary ventriloquism is so adroit that you never doubt that it's Kelly's own words you're reading in the headlong, action-packed story filled with stagecoach holdups, bank robberies and back-stabbing treachery.

Carey has it in his favor that outside Australia Kelly is best remembered as the title character of an old Mick Jagger movie. This leaves the author room to improvise. It also leaves him with quite a bit of explaining to do about historical background, biography and the lot. He handles this deftly, by slowly slipping in facts but never slipping in too many. That is, he makes impenetrability work for him, as in this passage: "He were a dirty liar it were his great hobby and profession he done it continuously like a man might pick his nose or carve faces on a bit of mallee root just to pass the time." Whatever mallee root is, it certainly sounds, well, Australian. But Carey's shrewdest move is to saturate his novel with that wheedling jailbird "I'm really innocent" vibe. This doesn't make Kelly more forgivable, just believable.

Life did hand Kelly one dirty deal after another--he was apprenticed (by his own mother!) to a highwayman (bushranger, in Australian lingo) while still a teenager, and never got a decent break thereafter. As Carey imagines him, Kelly is a self-styled populist hero, Australia's version of Jesse James or Pretty Boy Floyd, with more than a dash of Irish blarney: "Our brave parents was ripped from Ireland like teeth from the mouth of their own history." Carey clearly means for his book to be a meditation on the idea of the outlaw, with fact and fiction duking it out on every page. So it's a matter of fact that Kelly wore a homemade iron mask when he was captured in a gunfight. But it's from Carey that he got his mother complex, unavoidably prompting comparisons with Cody Jarrett, Jimmy Cagney's psychotic outlaw in "White Heat." In the end, Kelly is pitiable, heroic and reprehensible all at once, a complicated man made more complicated by the fact that he was his own worst enemy and his own best press agent. Historical fiction was tailor-made for this self-forged legend.

True History of the Kelly GangPeter Carey
(Knopf)
252 pages. $25