he 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
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
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
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.
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
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,
Collected Works of Billy the Kid is no less powerful for being
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