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,…
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