His Illegal Self is a little book in the way that raspberries or bees or nuggets of uranium are little. It is shorter than Peter Carey’s best-known books, Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang, both of which are epics of almost uncanny originality set in the nineteenth century, and both of which won the Booker Prize. The new novel takes place in the more recent past, the early 1970s, and unlike much of Carey’s previous work, which is exhilarating in its scope, His Illegal Self is exhilarating partly because the depth of field has narrowed so dramatically. Reading this novel, Carey’s tenth, is like peering at the human heart, at the world itself, through the distorted precision of a magnifying glass—one carried in the pocket of a seven-year-old boy. Carey’s characters are often accidental outlaws. In His Illegal Self, the adventurer and outlaw is a child.
Carey is an Australian whose work lives and breathes in Australia. Oscar and Lucinda follows a pasty misfit minister from the cramped but somehow dangerous world of an English village to the dangerous but somehow cramped wilderness of the colony. Oscar is a gambler, and he meets a young Australian heiress on the boat over who is also a gambler. Their lives, parallel, together, apart, are absorbed by the continent in all its promise and broken promises. It is a mad, magnificent tale, as is Carey’s breathless, violent, and heartbreaking telling of the story of Ned Kelly, Australia’s national horse thief hero. The country’s past and its vigorous landscapes are very much a part of His Illegal Self, too, but Carey, who has been a New Yorker for almost twenty years, begins the novel in the city. It is just a glancing look at a sliver of a moment in Manhattan, but it is faultless.
This is an improbable story, but it takes place in an improbable time, and begins with the lives of a family distorted by the 1960s: Jay Selkirk was born in 1964. His parents were SDS radicals at a time when many children of the privileged classes were SDS radicals, but unlike most of their peers, Susan Selkirk and Dave Rabbo did not melt back into liberal moderation or neoconservative disgust. By 1972, they are famous revolutionaries who have long ago disappeared underground to rob banks and make bombs on behalf of “the movement.” Jay’s real name is Che, and he lives in an odd, suspended incognito with his maternal grandmother, who rarely mentions his parents. It is only from his teenage babysitter, the boy in apartment 5D, that Che knows anything about his mother or father:
It was in Cameron’s room the boy saw the poster of Che Guevara and learned who he was and why he had no mother and father…. After his mother and the Dobbs Street Cell had robbed the bank in Bronxville, a judge had given Che to the permanent care of his grandma…. Cameron told the boy he was a political prisoner locked up at Kenoza Lake.
Che, like a refugee wandering in a foreign country, keeps a wad of carefully folded scraps bound by rubber bands in his pocket at all times: one is a creased picture of his father torn from Life magazine with the caption “Beyond your command.” Che calls these his “papers,” and indeed they serve as his childish documentation, visas to a nation of which he has no memory.
What he can remember is his grandfather, who has moved out (leaving them for what his grandmother calls only the “Love Nest”), and Grandma Selkirk herself, a devoted, eccentric, wealthy, and well-born scion of Park Avenue. They spend most of their time not in the city apartment, however, but in seclusion in upstate New York on Kenoza Lake, far from the prying eyes of the press and of society, where his grandmother can swim, drink martinis, and read Kipling to the boy. She is determined to give him, in the unsatisfactory age of the dangerous flower children, a rich and quiet “Victorian childhood.”
Carey relates most of this information about the Selkirk family through the macro-lens blur of Che’s boyish perception. Discrete details, memories, observations hop to the forefront, then relax again into misty background. Che’s limited, idiosyncratic understanding builds both narrative and emotional suspense. The effect, throughout the novel, is that of something between a summer daydream and a nightmare.
Carey has a suspenseful way with time, too:
Then, when the boy was almost eight, a woman stepped out of the elevator into the apartment on East Sixty-second Street and he recognized her straightaway…. No one would dream of saying, Here is your mother returned to you…. The boy stood beside the splendid stranger…. That was her blood, he could hear it now, pounding in his ears.
He uses time simultaneously to distance us, to advance the story, and to enfold his characters in insistent immediacy. This meeting, for example, takes place in 1972, but Carey creates an even greater distance than that thirty-six years, presenting the adult Che as a kind of oblique narrator, nudging the novel from simple past into recollection of the past. “He forgot so much, but he remembered this, years later—“ Carey writes, “it was a good seat, an armrest between them which the mother lifted so the boy could rest his face against her upper arm.” Carey also reminds us that the past, and even memories of the past, are moments in a sequence, a sequence that is taking place now: a story. (“Then,” he says in the passage above, and that word drops us into the middle of an ongoing narrative, an adventure. The boy is described not as being seven, but as “almost eight,” again suggesting movement, suggesting the future.) Yet with all that, Carey still insists on the moment itself: imperative, immediate, “pounding” in Che’s ears.
What Che does not realize, and what we come to realize only gradually, is that the splendid stranger who sets his blood pounding is not his mother. Her name is Anna Xenos, daughter of a working-class Greek family, scholarship student from Southie, Harvard graduate, newly hired to be the Alice May Twitchell Fellow, a professor at Vassar. His Illegal Self is the love story of this former radical, known as Dial (short for Dialectic), and a little boy raised as a Victorian in a radical age.
At an interview at Vassar, just the day before, Anna, dressed in Charles Jourdan shoes, was officially offered the assistant professorship, a triumphant moment for the daughter of an illiterate, immigrant sausage maker. But it was there, as she overlooked the placid green lawn and made polite conversation about the fall foliage, that Anna was drawn back to her own radical political past and to her close but unsympathetic relationship with Susan Selkirk. “I believe we have a friend in common,” says a dumpy fifty-year-old Chaucer professor. Dial has not seen Susan since Harvard, when she was the babysitter for the infant Che: “She carried the weight of his squirming life from May until September 1966—cruel ear infections long ago, jagged teeth like shards of quartz attacking from inside….” Secretly, Dial referred to Susan as “Crumbelina,” a privileged girl who “could not make a bed, let alone a revolution.” But now, not really understanding why, she agrees to the older professor’s request; she will call Susan, who asks her to arrange a visit with her son. Dial will take the boy to see his mother for two hours, then back to Grandma Selkirk.
Mrs. Selkirk, a perfectly recognizable, absolutely fresh New York creature, is one of Carey’s most fastidiously drawn characters. He reveals her in oblique slants of light that illuminate someone arrogant, vulnerable, comic, and tragic. She is a woman who buys a bottle of Chanel perfume as a gift for her estranged revolutionary daughter. Upstairs in the house in Kenoza Lake
there was a proper library with a sliding ladder and heavy books containing engravings of fish and elk and small flowers with German names which made [Che] sad. On the big torn sofas where he peered into these treasures, there was likely to be an abandoned Kipling or Rider Haggard or Robert Louis Stevenson which his grandma would continue with at dusk.
We catch glimpses of her through the language and the bits of imperfect knowledge that drift down to her grandson: Che wonders, for example, “about his missing grandfather and the Poison Dwarf who had once been Grandma’s friend.” One portrait of her comes in the form of a passage about the Guggenheim Museum, as implicit, as evocative as a perfectly wrought short story:
When the boy was four years old, and before that probably as well, Grandma Selkirk would take him to the Guggenheim Museum and order him to run down the spiral ramp which—she said so—was what was intended by the architect, Frank Lord Right. That had been the boy’s misunderstanding. Grandma used the name herself whenever possible. How perfect, she said. Frank Lord Right was not building Calvary, she said, did not mean us to trudge upward to our crucifixion. Push UP on the elevator button, his grandma said, then run like the wind.
Three times he got into trouble with the guards apparently—he had no memory of this but he sure recalled Grandma’s argument with the tiny black guard after she cupped her hands on the Brancusi head. The guard said, Get back, then Grandma called for someone higher up and in the end she was the only person in New York allowed to touch the head.
It is art, she told the guard, who hated her for being bohemian, she said so.
It is Grandma Selkirk who gives Dial a brown paper bag filled with things to keep Che busy should his mother be late, which the no-nonsense Mrs. Selkirk fully expects her to be: chocolate, card games, and two books—The Call of the Wild and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Grandma Selkirk is the link between the adventure stories of the past, full of danger and humor and betrayal and freedom and love, and the coming adventure among unwashed hippies who have chosen to live on the edge of civilization.
As Dial and Che set off, their new life begins immediately, even as they rush down together into the subway to Grand Central—“hand in hand, slippery together as newborn goats”—where Dial expects to meet Che’s mother. They both experience the exhilaration of new lovers. “He looked at her adoringly, little glances, smiles. She thought how glorious it was to be loved, she, Dial, who was not loved by anyone. She felt herself just absorb this little boy, his small damp hand dissolving in her own.” In this novel, love physically folds around the boy. Carey uses images of marsupials, of pouches and pockets of warmth and safety. When Che is happiest or when he is most afraid, he presses his face against Dial’s arm, her stomach, her breasts, “the warm cave beside her neck.”