His Illegal Self

Peter Carey has a knack for creating characters that would run into a heap of trouble with Homeland Security. Some ignore borders all together. 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 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.