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His Illegal Self

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Overview

Two-time Booker Prize-winner Peter Carey’s His Illegal Self crackles with passionate, electrifying prose and characters that leap off the page and into your psyche. Utterly captivating.

It is 1972 and Ché, a precocious seven-almost-eight-year-old boy, leads a rather bourgeois life on Park Avenue with his eccentric grandmother. His parents are young radicals in hiding from the FBI – he has never even met his father and he last saw his mother at the age of two. Ché is ecstatic ...

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His Illegal Self

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Overview

Two-time Booker Prize-winner Peter Carey’s His Illegal Self crackles with passionate, electrifying prose and characters that leap off the page and into your psyche. Utterly captivating.

It is 1972 and Ché, a precocious seven-almost-eight-year-old boy, leads a rather bourgeois life on Park Avenue with his eccentric grandmother. His parents are young radicals in hiding from the FBI – he has never even met his father and he last saw his mother at the age of two. Ché is ecstatic when a woman called Dial – who he believes is his mother – appears at his front door to take him out for lunch. They skip the meal and Dial whisks Ché off on a serpentine adventure, luring him with the promise of a big “surprise” and the idea that he has finally found someone to love. Eventually they find themselves stranded on a turbulent hippie commune in Australia, a lonely boy and a reluctant kidnapper with no one to rely on but each other.

His Illegal Self is a love story like no other. Simultaneously sinister and endearing, the incomparable perspectives and vividness of the characters’ voices are mesmerizing. It is impossible not to be moved by the openness and innocence of this young boy, and by his willingness and inherent need to love and to trust anyone and everyone as he seeks out his parents.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Liesl Schillinger
This idea, this truth—that a child in distress is hard-wired to seek protection from a woman, any woman, whatever her failings, her confusions, her ideology—is the heartbeat that races through Peter Carey's enthralling new novel, His Illegal Self, a book as psychologically taut as a Patricia Highsmith thriller and as starkly beautiful as Mulisch's [The Assault]…This novel marks a departure—an altogether successful one—for the versatile author, who usually paints gorgeous whorls of story around outlandish figures from the untouchable past, real or imagined: gamblers and dreamers, circus freaks, outlaws, prodigals and passionate eccentrics. Here, the world he inhabits—the protest movement of the '60s and '70s—is both familiar and recent.
—The New York Times
Ron Charles
His Illegal Self is front-loaded with shocks and twists that gradually fade into a contemplative tale of disrupted lives. Like two of his previous novels, My Life as a Fake (2003) and Theft (2006), this one is about acts of deception between characters—and between Carey and his readers. But whereas those earlier novels boasted clever tricks, His Illegal Self develops the kind of emotional impact that renders it even more enriching and satisfying…Carey's startling, kaleidoscopic plots are now so well known that we can't help overanticipating them, but he's still the master, still capable of staying two steps ahead of us. And in His Illegal Self the most surprising maneuver of all isn't so much a sudden revelation but his tender portrayal of the desperate love between this accidental mother and a little boy who she knows deserves better.
—The Washington Post
Donna Seaman
A psychologically astute and diabolically suspenseful novel . . . Carey has a gift for bringing to creepy-crawly and blistering life Australia’s jungle and desert wilds. His latest spectacularly involving and supremely well made novel of life on the edge begins in New York [and] ends up in Australia . . . Carey’s unique take on the conflict between the need to belong and the dream of freedom during the days of rage over the Vietnam War is at once terrifying and mythic. PLACE CODE AT END OF TEXT
— Booklist
School Library Journal

Adult/High School- It is 1972 and seven-year-old Che Selkirk, the son of radical parents he has never met, lives in isolated privilege with his well-to-do grandmother. Denied access to television and the news, he picks up scraps of information about his outlaw mother and father from a teenage neighbor who assures Che that his parents will come and "break you out of here." When a woman named Dial arrives at the boy's Park Avenue apartment to take him on a day excursion, he assumes that she is his mother. Unfortunately, things go terribly awry and Che becomes a fugitive himself. He and Dial end up in the Australian bush in an inhospitable commune. Carey uses a stream-of-consciousness style that poignantly communicates Che's confusion about his life on the lam and what he really wants. The explosive conclusion is worth the wait as the author vividly portrays the hardscrabble, primitive life of a group of hippies in his native Australia. Young adults will appreciate His Illegal Self for its main character-an orphan by circumstance-who struggles to understand his predicament and ultimately gains not only wisdom, but also the love he has sought.-Pat Bangs, Fairfax County Public Library, VA

Kirkus Reviews
This isn't the first fictional work to explore the militant radical underground of the late 1960s and early '70s, but it may well be the best. What freshens the familiar material is the child's-eye perspective with which Carey begins the story. Impressions and chronology take time to coalesce, as seven-year-old Che (called "Jay" by the patrician grandmother who has raised him) has little idea what is happening to him or why. Take the title as irony, because Che is the embodiment of innocence, with his only possible guilt by association. Most of what Che knows about his parents he has learned from his babysitter, who has promised him that he will be liberated: "They will break you out, man. Your life will start for real." Both his mother and his father, neither of whom he knows, are notorious underground militants, and Che himself has some sort of fame from a photo taken of him as a baby with his mother at a demonstration. One afternoon, the babysitter's prophecy appears to come true, as a woman whom Che believes to be his mother visits and flees with him. Whatever the relation between the two, a bond develops between Che and the captor/rescuer he has been told to call "Dial." As the novel's perspective shifts between the two characters, it appears that Dial has little more idea than Che what is going on. She has risked her career as a fledgling professor at Vassar to take the boy, and whatever relation she has with him, she has a history with the boy's father. The action quickly shifts from New York-where Che's grandmother lives, as does the novelist-to Australia, where Carey was born and raised and where revelation awaits for both the characters and the reader. Carey's mastery of toneand command of point of view are very much in evidence in his latest novel (My Life as a Fake, 2004, etc.), which is less concerned with period-piece politics than with the essence of identity. First printing of 60,000
From the Publisher
"Peter Carey is one of the great writers in English now. His Illegal Self is further proof, a book in which he's created a little boy who is neither too precious nor too wise, a little boy on a sad hard trip with his eyes wide open, watching everything and everyone around him. He makes you think of your own past life and all you felt when you were a kid being played upon and moved about by the adults of the world. This book is another triumph, among Carey's other wonderful books. The man can write. He seems capable of anything."
—Kent Haruf, author of Plainsongh and Eventide

"His Illegal Self by Peter Carey has the pace of a thriller but is beautifully styled. It is the late 1960s and Che is seven years old, dreaming of his radical activist parents coming back for him. A woman arrives in the New York home he shares with his grandmother and steals him away. He is willing to accept the adventure until it becomes apparent that things are not as they seem. With the action shifting to a commune in the Australian outback, Carey’s style is fantastically lively, making this a gorgeous as well as riveting read."
—Ruth Atkins, Booksellers’ Choice: February

"This isn't the first fictional work to explore the militant radical underground of the late 1960s and early '70s, but it may well be the best. What freshens the familiar material is the child's-eye perspective with which Carey begins the story. Impressions and chronology take time to coalesce, as seven-year-old Che (called "Jay" by the patrician grandmother who has raised him) has little idea what is happening to him or why. Take the title as irony, because Che is the embodiment of innocence, with his only possible guilt by association. [...] Carey's mastery of tone and command of point of view are very much in evidence in his latest novel which is less concerned with period-piece politics than with the essence of identity."
Kirkus ( Starred Review)

"Two-time Booker Prize winner Carey has a thing for outlaws, whether he's writing about the famous folk hero Ned Kelly or schemers involved in a literary hoax or art crime. He also has a gift for bringing to creepy-crawly and blistering life Australia's jungle and desert wilds. His latest spectacularly involving and supremely well made novel of life on the edge begins in New York as Che, a boy of seven living with his rich, no-nonsense grandmother, takes off with a woman festooned with beads and bells. [...] For every lurch forward, Carey throws this psychologically astute and diabolically suspenseful novel in reverse to reveal the truth about Dial and her love for the boy. Carey's unique take on the conflict between the need to belong and the dream of freedom during the days of rage over the Vietnam War is at once terrifying and mythic."
—Donna Seaman, Booklist

"Odd, syncopated, beautiful and emotionally compelling novel about the child of 60's radicals on the run ... fascinating and deeply compelling evocation of late 60's, early 70's period details in speech, atmosphere and irrational behavior, but at its core His Illegal Self is an ancient and magnificently eerie fairy tale about a child, wise beyond his years, stolen away to the forest, undergoing every kind of mortal trail, and surviving, in a surprising tale of luminous grace."
O Magazine

From the Hardcover edition.

The Barnes & Noble Review
Peter Carey has a knack for creating characters that would run into a heap of trouble with Homeland Security. Some ignore borders altogether. Others, like the painter hero of his 2006 novel, Theft, would almost certainly attempt to smuggle their own contraband across. But there are things in this world which cannot slip so easily -- no matter how wily the mule -- from one state to the next. Like a child, for instance.

Meet Che, the human hot potato passed around Carey's tenth novel, His Illegal Self. As the book begins, Che is living in Park Avenue splendor with his grandmother, the legend of his estranged parents fading fast. In the late '60s Che's mum and dad were radical activists at Harvard, but in 1972 they're among the FBI's most wanted. "They will come for you, man," says one of his friends. "They'll break you out of here." And then they do -- sort of.

Che's guide out of this world and into the next is a Vassar professor nicknamed Dial (short for "dialectic"). Having finally climbed out of activism into academe, Dial is going to do one last thing for the movement. She will break Che out of his bourgeois life. In a terrific early scene, her department head at Vassar slips her the number of her contact.

His Illegal Self is full of portent and mystery, both for Dial and her young charge. They are living in a world of surveillance and safe houses. But how quickly, when they are actually on the run, it all becomes so unglamorous. Carey brilliantly describes their zigzag from hotel to motel, to Sydney head shops, where the '60s motto -- "Turn on, tune in, drop out" -- has become an ironic slur. "I never want to hear that hippie [expletive] again," Dial says.

While Dial falls out of love fast with this life, to Che this unfolding disaster is just a big adventure, a field trip long awaited for and finally happening. The speed of movement, coupled with his giddiness over finally getting to see his father, makes his mind jumpy and jagged. Narrating beautifully from his point of view, Carey shows how the great wash of new senses and smells falls over him softly, while the increasing desperateness of the scenario is lost upon him, until it isn't.

Before long Che and Dial are walking along the gutter of a highway in Australia, and Carey finally lets his prose get out and gallop a bit. "Two black lanes north, two lanes south, some foreign grass in the middle," he writes, slowly peeling back from Che's point of view. "To the east and west were neatly mown verges about thirty feet wide and then there were the dull green walls of the Pinus radiata plantations, sliced by yellow fire roads but deathly quiet -- not a possum or a snake, not even a hopping carrion crow, could ever live there."

Here is where His Illegal Self begins to diverge from so many other novels about the countercultural downshift into dissipation. Like T. C. Boyle in Drop City, a satire of a hippie collective going bust in the Alaskan wilderness, Carey has numerous opportunities to needle the self-importance and chintzy mercantilism that grew out of the late '60s.

But Carey has already done that a bit -- in Bliss, his novel about an adman who moves to a commune -- so here he does something far cleverer. By shuffling back and forth from Che's point of view to Dial's, we get a brilliant portrait of how rough and confusing a time it was -- especially in Australia -- when the movement lost its purpose.

Our first clue as readers is provided by the landscape. Few novelists alive, and no one in Australia, not even Les Murray, can describe Australia's Outback with the fury and rhythmic accuracy Carey brings to his prose. This is not your typical back-to-the-land narrative. There will be no salvation in the earth, not only because the soil itself is tough but because the people are, too.

As they travel north it gets hotter, more mosquito-laden. Che and Dial are picked up by two ne'er-do-wells in a Ford full of funk: "Inside...were smells which the boy could not have named or untangled," Carey writes, "long wisps of WD-40 and marijuana, floating threads of stuff associated with freaks who made their own repairs, dandelion chains of dust and molecules of automotive plastics which rose up in the moldy heat."

This pair rob Dial, only to reencounter her at a muggy fug of a commune where Che and she live out the rest of their time in Australia. It is the 1970s, and these back-to-the-land advocates are ahead of their time. Amazingly, Carey resists the urge to paint this world in broad, satirical strokes, keeping the novel close to the friction between Dial and Che, the boy's rising alarm that his father is truly nowhere to be found.

It's the contrasts between Dial and Che's experience that give His Illegal Self its richness. Dial grows depressed, suddenly realizing what she has signed on for, while Che -- being young and optimistic, finally begins to start over. He befriends a mud-flecked, vegetable-growing crank named Trevor, gets a pet cat. He reads Tom Sawyer. It is not Edenic, this life, but it is -- in a way -- what Dial had hoped for him, if not for herself.

Time and again, His Illegal Self thwarts our expectations about it. What begins as a road novel full of momentum gets to Australia and then grinds to a halt, turning into something else entirely -- in part, the story of a woman reluctantly learning to become a mother. Isn't this, in part, why the '60s had to end? There were, in many cases, children to raise.

Sitting in their dense commune, rain pounding down, listening to the "adenoidenal whisper of his sleep," Dial finally realizes Che is her responsibility. He is, in fact, her revolution. And as with all revolutions, it's what happens when the dust clears that truly counts. --John Freeman

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle. He is writing a book on the tyranny of email for Scribner.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307276490
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/10/2009
  • Series: Vintage International
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 1,431,044
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

A two-time Booker Prize—winner and two-time recipient of the Commonwealth Prize, Peter Carey is the author of nine novels, a collection of short stories, and two books of non-fiction. Born in Australia, he now lives in New York City.

From the Hardcover edition.

Biography

"My fictional project has always been the invention or discovery of my own country," the prizewinning Australian author Peter Carey has said. This postcolonial undertaking has sometimes led Carey to wrestle with the great works of English literature: The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (1994) draws on Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, while in Jack Maggs (1997), a version of Dickens's Great Expectations, is told from the perspective of the convict who returns to England from Australia.

But although Carey went to what he calls "a particularly posh" Australian boarding school, he claims he didn't discover literature until he was out of school. He studied chemistry at Monash University for just a year before leaving to work in advertising. There, surrounded by readers and would-be writers, he discovered the great literature of the 20th century, including authors like Joyce, Faulkner and Beckett. "To read Faulkner for the first time was for me like discovering another planet," Carey said in an interview with The Guardian. "The pleasure of that language, the politics of giving voice to the voiceless."

Publishers rejected Carey's first three novels, so he began writing short stories. These, he later said, "felt like the first authentic things I had done." He was still working for an advertising agency when his first collection of short stories appeared in 1973, and he kept the part-time job after moving to an "alternative community" in Queensland. His first published novel, Bliss (1981), won a prestigious Australian literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award. The book is about an advertising executive who has a near-death experience and ends up living in a rural commune.

Carey's later novels ranged farther outside the bounds of his own experience, but he continued to develop his concern with Australian identity. 1988's Oscar and Lucinda, which tells the story of a colonial Australian heiress and her ill-fated love for an English clergyman, won the Booker Prize and helped establish Carey as one of the literary heavyweights of his generation. He won another Booker Prize for True History of the Kelly Gang (2000), the story of a notorious 19th-century outlaw whose legacy still shapes Australia's consciousness.

Though Carey now lives and teaches in New York City, his home country and its past still possess his imagination. ''History,'' he writes, ''is like a bloodstain that keeps on showing on the wall no matter how many new owners take possession, no matter how many times we paint over it.''

Good To Know

Peter Carey and J. M. Coetzee are the only two-time Booker Prize winners to date.

Carey caused a stir in the British press when he declined an invitation to meet Queen Elizabeth II. The royal invitation is extended to all winners of the Commonwealth Writers Prize, which Carey received in 1998 for Jack Maggs. He did meet the Queen after he won the award a second time, for True History of the Kelly Gang in 2001.

Fans of Carey's work know that in 1997, Oscar and Lucinda was made into a critically acclaimed movie starring Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett. But they may not know that Carey wrote the screenplay for the critically panned Wim Wenders film Until the End of the World (1991) as well as the screenplay adaptation of his own novel, Bliss (1991).

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    1. Also Known As:
      Peter Philip Carey
    1. Date of Birth:
      May 7, 1943
    2. Place of Birth:
      Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, Australia
    1. Education:
      Monash University (no degree)
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

His Illegal Self
By Peter Carey Knopf Copyright © 2008 Peter Carey
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780307263728

Chapter 1

There were no photographs of the boy's father in the house upstate. He had been persona non grata since Christmas 1964, six months before the boy was born. There were plenty of pictures of his mom. There she was with short blond hair, her eyes so white against her tan. And that was her also, with black hair, not even a sister to the blonde girl, although maybe they shared a kind of bright attention.

She was an actress like her grandma, it was said. She could change herself into anyone. The boy had no reason to disbelieve this, not having seen his mother since the age of two. She was the prodigal daughter, the damaged saint, like the icon that Grandpa once brought back from Athens—shining silver, musky incense—although no one had ever told the boy how his mother smelled.

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 had told him to expect it.

That was pretty typical of growing up with Grandma Selkirk. You were some kind of lovely insect, expected to know things through your feelers, by the kaleidoscope patterns in the others' eyes. No one would dream of saying, Here is your mother returned to you. Instead his grandma told him to put on his sweater. She collected her purse,found her keys and then all three of them walked down to Bloomingdale's as if it were a deli. This was normal life. Across Park, down Lex. The boy stood close beside the splendid stranger with the lumpy khaki pack strapped onto her back. That was her blood, he could hear it now, pounding in his ears. He had imagined her a wound-up spring, light, bright, blonde, like Grandma in full whir. She was completely different; she was just the same. By the time they were in Bloomingdale's she was arguing about his name.

What did you just call Che? she asked the grandma.

His name, replied Grandma Selkirk, ruffling the boy's darkening summer hair. That's what I called him. She gave the mother a bright white smile. The boy thought, Oh, oh!

It sounded like Jay, the mother said.

The grandma turned sharply to the shopgirl who was busy staring at the hippie mother.

Let me try the Artemis.

Grandma Selkirk was what they call an Upper East Side woman—cheekbones, tailored gray hair—but that was not what she called herself. I am the last bohemian, she liked to say, to the boy, particularly, meaning that no one told her what to do, at least not since Pa Selkirk had thrown the Buddha out the window and gone to live with the Poison Dwarf.

Grandpa had done a whole heap of other things besides, like giving up his board seat, like going spiritual. When Grandpa moved out, Grandma moved out too. The Park Avenue apartment was hers, always had been, but now they used it maybe once a month. Instead they spent their time on Kenoza Lake near Jeffersonville, New York, a town of 400 where "no one" lived. Grandma made raku pots and rowed a heavy clinker boat. The boy hardly saw his grandpa after that, except sometimes there were postcards with very small handwriting. Buster Selkirk could fit a whole ball game on a single card.

For these last five years it had been just Grandma and the boy together and she threaded the squirming live bait to hook the largemouth bass and, also, called him Jay instead of Che. There were no kids to play with. There were no pets because Grandma was allergic. But in fall there were Cox's pippins, wild storms, bare feet, warm mud and the crushed-glass stars spilling across the cooling sky. You can't learn these things anywhere, the grandma said. She said she planned to bring him up Victorian. It was better than "all this."

He was christened Che, right?

Grandma's wrist was pale and smooth as a flounder's belly. The sunny side of her arm was brown but she had dabbed the perfume on the white side—blue blood, that's what he thought, looking at the veins.

Christened? His father is a Jew, the grandma said. This fragrance is too old for her, she told the Bloomingdale's woman who raised a cautious eyebrow at the mother. The mother shrugged as if to say, What are you going to do? Too floral, Grandma Selkirk said without doubting she would know.

So it's Jay?

Grandma spun around and the boy's stomach gave a squishy sort of lurch. Why are you arguing with me? she whispered. Are you emotionally tone-deaf?

The salesgirl pursed her lips in violent sympathy.

Give me the Chanel, said Grandma Selkirk. While the salesgirl wrapped the perfume, Grandma Selkirk wrote a check. Then she took her pale kid gloves from the glass countertop. The boy watched as she drew them onto each finger, thick as eel skin. He could taste it in his mouth.

You want me to call him Che in Bloomingdale's, his grandma hissed, finally presenting the gift to the mother.

Shush, the mother said.

The grandma raised her eyebrows violently.

Go with the flow, said the mother. The boy petted her on the hip and found her soft, uncorseted.

The flow? The grandma had a bright, fright smile and angry light blue eyes. Go with the flow!

Thank you, the girl said, for shopping at Bloomingdale's.

The grandma's attention was all on the mother. Is that what Communists believe? Che, she cried, waving her gloved hand as in charades.

I'm not a Communist. OK?

The boy wanted only peace. He followed up behind, his stomach churning.

Che, Che! Go with the flow! Look at you! Do you think you could make yourself a tiny bit more ridiculous?

The boy considered his illegal mother. He knew who she was although no one would say it outright. He knew her the way he was used to knowing everything important, from hints and whispers, by hearing someone talking on the phone, although this particular event was so much clearer, had been since the minute she blew into the apartment, the way she held him in her arms and squeezed the air from him and kissed his neck. He had thought of her so many nights and here she was, exactly the same, completely different—honey-colored skin and tangled hair in fifteen shades. She had Hindu necklaces, little silver bells around her ankles, an angel sent by God.

Grandma Selkirk plucked at the Hindu beads. What is this? This is what the working class is wearing now?

I am the working class, she said. By definition.

The boy squeezed the grandma's hand but she snatched it free. Where's his father? They keep showing his face on television. Is he going with the flow as well?

The boy burped quietly in his hand. No one could have heard him but Grandma brushed at the air, as if grabbing at a fly. I called him Jay because I was worried for you, she said at last. Maybe it should have been John Doe. God help me, she cried, and the crowds parted before her. Now I understand I was an idiot to worry.

The mother raised her eyebrows at the boy and, finally, reached to take his hand. He was pleased by how it folded around his, soothing, comfortable. She tickled his palm in secret. He smiled up. She smiled down. All around them Grandma raged.

For this, we paid for Harvard. She sighed. Some Rosenbergs.

The boy was deaf, in love. By now they were out on Lexington Avenue and his grandma was looking for a taxi. The first cab would be theirs, always was. Except that now his hand was inside his true mother's hand and they were marsupials running down into the subway, laughing.

In Bloomingdale's everything had been so white and bright with glistening brass. Now they raced down the steps. He could have flown.

At the turnstiles she released his hand and pushed him under. She slipped off her pack. He was giddy, giggling. She was laughing too. They had entered another planet, and as they pushed down to the platform the ceiling was slimed with alien rust and the floor was flecked and speckled with black gum—so this was the real world that had been crying to him from beneath the grating up on Lex.

They ran together to the local, and his heart was pounding and his stomach was filled with bubbles like an ice-cream float. She took his hand once more and kissed it, stumbling.

The 6 train carried him through the dark, wire skeins unraveling, his entire life changing all at once. He burped again. The cars swayed and screeched, thick teams of brutal cables showing in the windowed dark. And then he was in Grand Central first time ever and they set off underground again, hand in hand, slippery together as newborn goats.

Men lived in cardboard boxes. A blind boy rattled dimes and quarters in a tin. The S train waited, painted like a warrior, and they jumped together and the doors closed as cruel as traps, chop, chop, chop, and his face was pushed against his mother's jasmine dress. Her hand held the back of his head. He was underground, as Cameron in 5D had predicted. They will come for you, man. They'll break you out of here.

In the tunnels between Times Square and Port Authority a passing freak raised his fist. Right On! he called.

He knew you, right?

She made a face.

He's SDS?

She could not have expected that—he had been studying politics with Cameron.

PL? he asked.

She sort of laughed. Listen to you, she said. Do you know what SDS stands for?

Students for a Democratic Society, he said. PL is Progressive Labor. They're the Maoist fraction. See, you're famous. I know all about you.

I don't think so.

You're sort of like the Weathermen.

I'm what?

I'm pretty sure.

Wrong fraction, baby.

She was teasing him. She shouldn't. He had thought about her every day, forever, lying on the dock beside the lake, where she was burnished, angel sunlight. He knew his daddy was famous too, his face on television, a soldier in the fight. David has changed history.

They waited in line. There was a man with a suitcase tied with bright green rope. He had never been anyplace like this before.

Where are we going? There was a man whose face was cut by lines like string through Grandma's beeswax. He said, This bus going to Philly, little man.

The boy did not know what Philly was.

Stay here, the mother said, and walked away. He was by himself. He did not like that. The mother was across the hallway talking to a tall thin woman with an unhappy face. He went to see what was happening and she grabbed his arm and squeezed it hard. He cried out. He did not know what he had done.

You hurt me.

Shut up, Jay. She might as well have slapped his legs. She was a stranger, with big dark eyebrows twisted across her face.

You called me Jay, he cried.

Shut up. Just don't talk.

You're not allowed to say shut up.

Her eyes got big as saucers. She dragged him from the ticket line and when she released her hold he was still mad at her. He could have run away but he followed her through a beat-up swing door and into a long passage with white cinder blocks and the smell of pee everywhere and when she came to a doorway marked facility, she turned and squatted in front of him.

You've got to be a big boy, she said.

I'm only seven.

I won't call you Che. Don't you call me anything.

Don't you say shut up.

OK.

Can I call you Mom?

She paused, her mouth open, searching in his eyes for something.

You can call me Dial, she said at last, her color gone all high.

Dial?

Yes.

What sort of name is that. It's a nickname, baby. Now come along. She held him tight against her and he once more smelled her lovely smell. He was exhausted, a little sick feeling.

What is a nickname?

A secret name people use because they like you.

I like you, Dial. Call me by my nickname too.

I like you, Jay, she said. They bought the tickets and found the bus and soon they were crawling through the Lincoln Tunnel and out into the terrible misery of the New Jersey Turnpike. It was the first time he actually remembered being with his mother. He carried the Bloomingdale's bag cuddled on his lap, not thinking, just startled and unsettled to be given what he had wanted most of all.

Continues...

Excerpted from His Illegal Self by Peter Carey Copyright © 2008 by Peter Carey. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Foreword

1. Peter Carey is frequently drawn to writing about outlaws and outcasts. Why do you think this is? Why do we like to read about such characters?

2. What do you think Che's personal and social values are? How has his life been shaped by the lives of his parents, even though he has not been raised by them?

3. Anna Xenos is nicknamed “Dial” (short for dialectic) by her Harvard classmates. It's a playful nickname, given because Dial will argue both opposing sides of an argument, but do you think that the novel itself is in any way dialectical?

4. Late in the novel, Dial feels that she had “brought all this about. If only she had not done this. If only she had not done that. Everything she touched was broken” [p. 263]. Is she right? How might she have acted differently?

5. Dial tells Che, “You're a pretty amazing kid” [p. 271]. In what ways is Che an amazing kid? What is unusual about the way he sees the world?

6. Dial says of her actions: “You take the kid to the father, but the father doesn't want to know. By then you are accused of kidnapping. You get frightened. You run away. Dumb, but not criminal” [p. 245]. Do you think Dial is guilty of kidnapping, or simply of making what seems to be the best choices available in a very difficult situation?

7. In what ways does His Illegal Self illuminate the social and political tensions of the 1960s? What role does Dial's own social status, and her relationship to the Selkirk family, play?

8. Why doesn't Dial tell Che that she's not his mother? Is she simply protecting him, or does she have some unconscious motive for wishing to play the roleof his mother?

9. Dial thinks that the most remarkable thing about Che was his “perfect trust” [p. 120]. Does Che lose his trust in Dial and the adults around him over the course of the novel? In what ways can His Illegal Self be read as a story about the loss of innocence?

10. Looking back, Dial regrets the moment when she took Susan Selkirk's number and, “relishing her connection with the famous,” decided to call her [p. 62]. Why does she call Susan and agree to her request? In what sense is this a major turning point in her life?

11. What is life like in the Queensland hippie commune? In what ways does the commune seem to perpetuate, rather than reject, many of the social rules and behaviors it has tried to abandon?

12. What role does Trevor play in the story? How do Che's feelings about him change over the course of the novel?

13. The novel ends with this remarkable sentence: “Even as an adult he would believe that something physical had been left inside him — small, smooth, not a pearl, more lustrous, luminous, a sort of seed which he would eventually pretend to believe was simply a memory, nothing more, that he would carry along the littered path which would be his own comic and occasionally disastrous life” [p. 272]. What is that “seed” which has been left inside Che? What kind of life do you think he is likely to have after such a childhood?

14. What does the novel reveal about our own time? Are there significant parallels between the worlds Carey describes and America's current social and political situation?

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Reading Group Guide

1. Peter Carey is frequently drawn to writing about outlaws and outcasts. Why do you think this is? Why do we like to read about such characters?

2. What do you think Che's personal and social values are? How has his life been shaped by the lives of his parents, even though he has not been raised by them?

3. Anna Xenos is nicknamed “Dial” (short for dialectic) by her Harvard classmates. It's a playful nickname, given because Dial will argue both opposing sides of an argument, but do you think that the novel itself is in any way dialectical?

4. Late in the novel, Dial feels that she had “brought all this about. If only she had not done this. If only she had not done that. Everything she touched was broken” [p. 263]. Is she right? How might she have acted differently?

5. Dial tells Che, “You're a pretty amazing kid” [p. 271]. In what ways is Che an amazing kid? What is unusual about the way he sees the world?

6. Dial says of her actions: “You take the kid to the father, but the father doesn't want to know. By then you are accused of kidnapping. You get frightened. You run away. Dumb, but not criminal” [p. 245]. Do you think Dial is guilty of kidnapping, or simply of making what seems to be the best choices available in a very difficult situation?

7. In what ways does His Illegal Self illuminate the social and political tensions of the 1960s? What role does Dial's own social status, and her relationship to the Selkirk family, play?

8. Why doesn't Dial tell Che that she's not his mother? Is she simply protecting him, or does she have some unconscious motive for wishing to play the role of his mother?

9. Dial thinks that the most remarkable thing about Che was his “perfect trust” [p. 120]. Does Che lose his trust in Dial and the adults around him over the course of the novel? In what ways can His Illegal Self be read as a story about the loss of innocence?

10. Looking back, Dial regrets the moment when she took Susan Selkirk's number and, “relishing her connection with the famous,” decided to call her [p. 62]. Why does she call Susan and agree to her request? In what sense is this a major turning point in her life?

11. What is life like in the Queensland hippie commune? In what ways does the commune seem to perpetuate, rather than reject, many of the social rules and behaviors it has tried to abandon?

12. What role does Trevor play in the story? How do Che's feelings about him change over the course of the novel?

13. The novel ends with this remarkable sentence: “Even as an adult he would believe that something physical had been left inside him — small, smooth, not a pearl, more lustrous, luminous, a sort of seed which he would eventually pretend to believe was simply a memory, nothing more, that he would carry along the littered path which would be his own comic and occasionally disastrous life” [p. 272]. What is that “seed” which has been left inside Che? What kind of life do you think he is likely to have after such a childhood?

14. What does the novel reveal about our own time? Are there significant parallels between the worlds Carey describes and America's current social and political situation?

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 17, 2008

    a look at the love that feeds our inner animal

    a well written account of the ties that bind us all-- history, politics, love, fear, nature-- it's all there. you will cry, but laugh, and find yourself rooting for the freedom you may discover that you, too, seek. read it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 18, 2008

    Amused

    Pardon me, but shouldn't anyone with a career in the business of books have a good grasp of proper grammar? Anyway, this book's pretty interesting, and it has a particular style to it, but it's easy to adjust to. At least go read the excerpt.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 6, 2008

    A reviewer

    IM from europe and im a book critic. i have never seen anything so horrible looking in my life,and trust me i've seen a lot.the book has no colourful essence to it!if I wasn't paid to read this book would have never of read this piece nonscense.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2012

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    Posted October 7, 2008

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    Posted June 4, 2014

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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