pulp (2008-09)

A Flawed Cause


Peter Careyâ’s latest and a history of the American hotel

Peter Carey His Illegal Self (Knopf)

Peter Careyâ’s latest novel, His Illegal Self, revisits the literary territory of his greatest triumphs, yet fails to achieve their greatness. Many of Careyâ’s best books are set in Australia in the 19th-century, a time when that continent served principally as a British penal colony and was a frontier populated with the criminal, the disenfranchised, and the downtrodden. Central casting couldnâ’t deliver better material for a writer of Careyâ’s inclinations, and his novels set in this period are especially well-endowed with boisterous caricature verging on pandemonium.

Which isnâ’t to suggest that His Illegal Self is set in 19th-century Australia. Itâ’s set in 1973, partly in the United States, but mostly in northeastern Australia. In Careyâ’s hands this era constitutes a frontier of sorts, densely populated by people hell-bent on flawed causesâ"another Carey common denominator.

Illegal Self opens as the Students for a Democratic Society goes underground, with one Susan Selkirk included among its membership. The novelâ’s opening pages introduce Susanâ’s estranged 7-year-old son, Che, on the day that Susan accidentally and quite publicly blows herself up. Coincidentally, this is the same day that Susanâ’s asked a former conspiratorâ"Anna Xenos, aka Dial, short for Dialecticâ"to act as go-between for a meet with Che. Susanâ’s dramatic immolation leaves Dial responsible for Che as well as on the run for her SDS associations.

Escaping arrest to Queensland, Australia, the two encounter a model assortment of colorful Carey oddballs. Among them are Trevor Dobbs (â“sleek as a porpoise, sheathed in a good half-inch-thick coat of fatâ”), John the Rabbitoh (â“he smelled of cut grass and radiator hose and two-stroke fuelâ”), and a covey of nameless hippies.

Illegal Self resonates with curious Wizard of Oz overtones, populated as it is with a displaced orphan (in Oz, no less), a cyclone, an at-risk pet (in this case a cat), a mixed bag of malevolent females and flawed but generally benign males, and lots of road time. And while the plot can creak, Careyâ’s clever wordplay dazzles sufficiently to keep such flaws behind the curtain, mostly hidden.

A.K. Sandoval-Strausz Hotel: An American History (Yale University Press)

In his exhaustively researched Hotel: An American History, A.K. Sandoval-Strausz associates the creation of the American hotel with our first presidentâ’s tours to the 13 states in 1789-1791. To avoid the appearance of political favoritism, Washington chose not to stay in private homes during his tours, instead using the sparsely available and highly variable inns then on offer. In due course, such ad hoc inns were uprooted by purpose-built hotels. Moreover, as modes of transportation expanded, the American hotel emerged as â“architecturally, socially, and politically distinct from travel accommodation elsewhere in the modern world,â” ultimately emulated worldwide.

That the research included here does not fully support such a claim of distinctionâ"a shortcoming the author concedesâ"is forgivable and perhaps beside the point only because thereâ’s so much other interesting detail. Up-market hotel menus, for example, which in mid-19th-century Boston read like koans: â“beef,â” â“chicken,â” â“veal,â” and â“tongue,â” hold the adjectives, adverbs, red-wine reduction, confit, and watercress. Of greater significance is Sandoval-Strauszâ’s chapter on innkeeper common law, which established the legal aspects of hotel hospitality and formed a significant hurdle to racial integration.

The chapter entitled â“Unruly Guests and Anxious Hosts: Sex, Theft, and Violence,â” offers a distracting helping of the prurient. Suffice to say that nothing has changed since the hotelâ’s inceptionâ"the crimes, drama, and characters could all be drawn from todayâ’s headlines. In that respect, the hotel has served as a model of American urban life, what Sandoval-Strausz calls a â“patterning device, an institution in which people developed expectations and behaviors appropriate to new modes of city living.â” â" Jonathan Frey


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