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Bibliolatry: opinions from a very

No. 16:  

Bin Laden, Bushranger


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The Swedish Academy recently awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize for literature to V. S. Naipaul. Their timing was suspicious. Though Naipaul is certainly a worthy novelist, he is also well-known for his insightful critiques of contemporary, political Islam. Given that Naipaul was awarded the prize precisely one month after the most devastating terrorist attack by extremist Muslims in history, many speculated that Naipaul would not be a Nobel laureate today if the World Trade Center in New York were still standing.

But no one said a word the next week when the 2001 Booker prize was awarded to Peter Carey for True History of the Kelly Gang. Wasn't this also somewhat ironic?

Carey's novel is an imaginative rendition of the life of Australian's most famous bushranger (i.e. outlaw). In the eyes of the authorities, Ned Kelly was a thief and a murderer. He stole livestock, robbed banks, and killed a few police officers. But in the popular imagination, and in Carey's eyes, Ned Kelly remains a hero, Australia's favorite scrappy underdog. Though nothing but an uneducated, dirt-poor Irishman, Kelly gave the Anglo establishment a whopper of a headache. He gave them the finger and got away with it — for a time anyway.

I hate to say it, but isn't this more or less a description of how many people around the world today perceive Osama bin Laden? Don't get me wrong. I certainly do not mean to imply that Peter Carey in any way supports bin Laden. In fact, Carey is himself a New Yorker and has written eloquently about what it was like to be in the city during and after the events of September 11th, which he called "pure evil." Nevertheless, it seems ironic that he would win a major literary prize a month later for a book that romanticizes an outlaw.

On September 12th, President Bush warned, "There's an old poster out West, as I recall, that said, Wanted, Dead or Alive." Though he took a great deal of heat for the comment, by putting bin Laden in the context of the Old West, it's possible that Bush was less out of touch than many claimed. Bin Laden fits the profile of an Old West outlaw perfectly, which should console as much as frighten. For the outlaw's story — and fate — is well-known. And no one knows it better than America; it's one of our favorites. We've heard the story so many times we know its beginning, middle, and end by rote.

Ever since Robin Hood infuriated the Sheriff of Nottingham to the silent pleasure of the English peasantry, the West has been inundated by stories of reckless anti-heroes. The twentieth century was a particular boon for the genre. Bonny and Clyde, Rebel Without a Cause, Thelma and Louise, To Catch a Thief, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and every gangster movie ever made, all feature characters who flaunt the rules of society in order to live according to a personal code. The outlaw's life is reckless, free, and impulsive — unhindered by morality or duty. Sounds good, no?

Well, yes and no. The problem is that no matter how free and glamorous an outlaw's life, he or she tends to create more than their fair share of havoc. Though many envy, or even root for, the outlaw, others just get mad. Perhaps the most memorable explication of this paradox was given in the Brady Bunch. Who can forget the episode where Bobby develops an infatuation with Jesse James? Mr. and Mrs. Brady become truly worried when Bobby writes an admiring school report about Jesse James. So they arrange to have Bobby meet an old man whose father was killed by James during a train robbery. Forced to face the realities of a life of crime, Bobby wises up and determines to lead a law-abiding life.

So far, so good. Except there's one problem. Who cares about Bobby Brady Good Citizen? Sure, he was a cute kid, but you can just imagine his insipid adult life, a mess of casseroles, brats, Disney videos, and two-hour commutes — forty years of forty-hours-a-week working for someone else, and then a steady decline until death. A movie of Bobby's life would hardly pack the theater. You can bet, though, that the audience would perk up if Mike Brady's youngest son traded in his good-citizenship for a fast horse, a couple of six shooters, a reckless woman, and a brooding demeanor.

A tension between personal desire and social responsibility lies at the heart of the outlaw's story, though each storyteller accommodates this conflict differently. In Carey's novel it's simple. Ned Kelly was absolved of his responsibilities to others because the society he lived in was unjust.

Peter Carey first decided to write about Ned Kelly after reading a long letter Ned Kelly wrote explaining his actions, a sort of nineteenth-century Australian Unibomber Manifesto. Specifically, Carey was inspired by the following conviction: "If my lips taught the public that men are made mad by bad treatment, then my life will not have been thrown away." True History of the Kelly Gang is a novelist's attempt to demonstrate precisely how Ned Kelly was turned into "Dreaded Ned" by a government that actively sought to keep Kelly, his family, and his entire class down. In other words, injustice breeds injustice — it also breeds heroes.

As the critics have already proclaimed, Carey succeeded brilliantly. If Ned Kelly was already a legend, Carey has now transformed him, as only a true artist can, into myth.

However, not all outlaws are heroes. Bobby Brady dropped his boyhood fascination for Jesse James when he learned that he was a Bad Man. Ron Hansen, though, never lost his, and when he grew up and became a novelist, he decided to take a crack at telling Jesse James's story.

In The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford Hansen is less interested in the consequences of injustice than in the nature of violence — and envy. Hansen's Jesse James is cunning, superstitious, gallant, cruel, and courteous. He is one moment a gentleman and a family man and the next a calculating, cold-blooded killer. He is feared by both his friends and enemies and admired by people around the world. He is an international celebrity not because people approve of crime, but because he is so audacious and gets away with it.

Hansen skillfully penetrates the heart of these contradictions by focusing on the relationship between Jesse James and the man who will eventually murder him, the younger brother of one of his gang members. Like Bobby Brady, Bob Ford grew up worshipping the legendary Jesse James. After he actually meets Jesse, though, a more complex relationship develops — especially after Bob kills Jesse's cousin and tries to hide it from him. The two become entwined in a Jesus-and-Judas dance macabre, until Robert Ford finally embraces his fate. Ironically, after killing Jesse James, Robert Ford is not called a hero but branded a coward, the man who shot a legend in the back. He lives out the rest of his days as a pimp and an apologist.

Though many of the characters in the novel romanticize Jesse James, Hansen never does. Make no mistake, his Jesse is a singular, larger-than-life character. But Hansen increases his stature by making him fully-human, not supra-human. Hansen's Jesse James is a great character in the tradition of Richard III, not Darth Vader.

Our next example of outlawiana comes from another contemporary master. Michael Ondaatje is a poet who became a novelist. This odd little book, a pastiche of poetry, prose, and even photography, is something in between a novel and a poetry collection. However, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid is no less powerful for being schizophrenic.

Billy the Kid and Jesse James had a lot in common. They were both gentleman dandies and callous murderers; they were both as hated by the authorities as they were admired by the population; they both had a long relationship with their assassin. But Ondaatje is up to something very different than Hansen. He is less interested in creating a three-dimensional person than in deepening a myth. This "novel" is both gruesome and lyrical — "and Pat Garrett / sliced off my head. / Blood a necklace on me all my life" — just as Ondaatje's Billy the Kid is both violent and romantic. For Ondaatje, the outlaw has the fearful symmetry of Blake's Tyger. He is as much a figure of beauty as he is an embodiment of terrible power.

Which brings us back to the timing of the Booker committee. It's slightly disconcerting just now to celebrate a novel that shows a renegade criminal to be not only an understandable byproduct of injustice, but a glorious one. If injustice breeds injustice, then just who bears responsibility for the present situation? And if bin Laden so precisely mirrors the classic profile of the outlaw, a figure that has such an enormous pull on our own imagination, how can we expect his admirers to realize that he is a crook and not a hero?

The whole thing is confusing for Americans (as it is, I'm sure, for Australians, Brits, Germans, etc.). We have a tendency to admire anyone with enough guts and cunning to stand up to the Man and get away with it, even if they commit horrible crimes in the process. And yet today, we're the Man — we're the police, the FBI, the Gestapo, Scotland Yard, the CIA, the British Crown, and the government all rolled into one — it's not a role we tend to relish. However, though it may be little consolation at the moment, no matter how much damage the outlaw inflicts, the end of his story is always the same: he loses miserably.


p.s. And then, of course, writers get busy turning his life into fiction.

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