HIS ILLEGAL SELF by Peter Carey (Random House), 272 pages, $32 cloth. Rating: NNN
Sixties radicals driven underground isn’t exactly a fresh topic. Books by Marge Piercy and movies like Running On Empty have tracked the rebels whose political actions turned them into desperados.
Peter Carey’s His Illegal Self is different for two reasons. First, the story is told from the perspective of seven-year-old Jay, who has been brought up by his upper-crust grandmother after his mother goes underground. He’s then taken from his grandmother’s Upper West Side apartment to meet his mother, with the old woman’s permission, by Dial – short for Dialectic – an assistant professor who’s maintained her movement ties.
Things go terribly wrong, and Dial winds up running off with the boy to Australia. There, she rents a hideout among other hippie radicals on the lam and waits – we’re not quite sure for what.
Her neighbours are not nice people, and here’s another element that distinguishes Carey’s novel. These are not suffering, repentent radicals who tried to make change, killed someone accidentally and then got swept up in a legal system that’s forced them to flee in perpetuity.
They are suspicious, desperate, even whiny characters. Hiding out has diminished their humantity.
In the meantime, Dial – who actually has no idea what she’s gotten herself into – and Jay, originally named Che, develop a complex relationship that forms the core of His Illegal Self. He really wants his mother, and Dial doesn’t have a maternal bone in her body.
When slightly creepy neighbour Trevor starts to get friendly with both Che and Dial, the tension mounts.
In taut, vivid prose, Carey gives us a sweltering, muggy Australia and believable characters struggling to make their way in a world over which they have zero control.
There’s no nostalgia here for the incendiary 60s, only bitterness and sadness for the human beings who got caught in the crossfire.