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The Accidental Tourist
A vulnerable child of the radical underground learns to make his way.

Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, February 10, 2008

HIS ILLEGAL SELF

By Peter Carey

Knopf. 272 pp. $24.95

If you're a Peter Carey fan -- and you should be -- watch what you read about his compulsive new novel. Even the dust jacket risks spoiling the effect of this alternately gripping and disorienting story. The usual problem for reviewers is trying not to give away the end, but here the danger lies in giving away the beginning: 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.

At the center of the story is a precocious 7-year-old boy named Che. The child of '60s radicals and the subject of one of the decade's most sensational news photos, he was placed in the custody of his Park Avenue grandmother at the age of 2 and raised in strict isolation in upstate New York. "She planned to bring him up Victorian," Carey writes. No television: no chance of seeing images of his infamous parents being escorted away by police. But the boy picks up stray details from a teenage neighbor who regales him with stories about the SDS, the Weathermen and his namesake, Che Guevara. He shows the boy a picture of his father from Life magazine. "You got a right to know," he tells him. "Your father is a great American. . . . They will come for you, man. They'll break you out of here."

The plot explodes off the first page with what was supposed to have been a moment of reconciliation. Che's grandmother has agreed to a one-hour visit with the boy's mother, the first in five years. But when Dial arrives to pick him up, she's tense and their reunion is fraught with complications. Che loves his grandmother, but of course no one could compete with the allure of an absent mother: "He had thought about her every day, forever," Carey writes. "She was burnished, angel sunlight."

Almost immediately, the adults' plans go horribly wrong; everyone's expectations are shattered and reordered by betrayal and fear. In a moment of panic, Dial finds herself on the lam again with the boy, the subject of an international search, dashing through seedy motels and safe houses with a wad of hundred-dollar bills -- then out of the country, underground in the land Down Under, where "the world was green, fecund, everything rotting and being born." It's a sudden, irrevocable destruction of the respectable life she had spent years constructing. The grandmother's threat rings in her ears: "If anything happens to him, I'll kill you." Only Che thrills to this new adventure, the fulfillment of a cherished dream: "His real life was just starting," he thinks. "He was going to see his dad."

The whole story bristles with political import -- the Vietnam War, the student uprisings, domestic terrorism -- but Carey keeps all that on the margins. He focuses instead on Dial's conflicted attitude toward motherhood and her faltering efforts to construct a home for this desperately trusting child, this "strange little thing," so serious and vulnerable. "If there was a way out of this, she did not see it," Carey writes, "and she once again regretted not leaving him in that hotel room. That might seem cruel to pet lovers and sentimentalists, but he would be with his grandma now, safe in bed on the other side of the world."

Although Carey has lived in New York since 1990, the two-time Booker Prize-winner was born and raised in Australia and spent time in his 30s at an alternative community in Queensland named Starlight. That experience may have informed his rather bitter portrayal of the loosely organized band of "feral hippies" in the East Coast town of Nambour, where Dial and Che settle. The young radicals here come off no better than they did in Drop City (2003), T.C. Boyle's novel about a commune. Dial considers them "time-warp idiots," self-righteous, naive and quick to construct new regulations to replace the ones they'd thrown off. The only person who takes a special interest in Dial and her boy is a paranoid, illiterate sanitation worker, who seems like a direct descendant of Mad Max. (He has the book of Revelation on cassette.) Dial wonders if she'll be murdered in her sleep or merely bored to death by another communal meeting in which "the conversation continued like water dribbling from a hose." Meanwhile, Che keeps wondering which one of these men is his father. The effect is oddly frightening and heartbreaking.

The genius of the novel is Carey's portrayal of this polite little boy, who carries around his "papers" and admonishes Dial not to yell, not to swear, not to tell lies. Even in the midst of her extremity, "he was as happy as he could ever remember, to have her to himself finally, at last, and the prospect of his father, that electric cloud of surprise hanging over him like vapor from an open bathroom door."

The story is not strictly told from Che's point of view -- Carey frequently backtracks and fills in bits of missing history -- but the narrative subtly reflects the boy's elliptical perception of what's happening. Events are scrambled and impressionistic, coming in and out of focus like a memory as Che vacillates between confusion and certainty, fear and delight. And this may be the first novel in which Carey allows himself to slow down. There are even some languid pages here and there as the months stretch out, but they're quickly interrupted by new waves of panic.

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. *

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. Send e-mail to charlesr@washpost.com.

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