Peter Carey’s latest novel, His Illegal Self, revisits the literary territory of his greatest triumphs, yet fails to achieve their greatness. Many of Carey’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 couldn’t deliver better material for a writer of Carey’s inclinations, and his novels set in this period are especially well-endowed with boisterous caricature verging on pandemonium.
Which isn’t to suggest that His Illegal Self is set in 19th-century Australia. It’s set in 1973, partly in the United States, but mostly in northeastern Australia. In Carey’s hands this era constitutes a frontier of sorts, densely populated by people hell-bent on flawed causes—another Carey common denominator.
llegal Self opens as the Students for a Democratic Society goes underground, with one Susan Selkirk included among its membership. The novel’s opening pages introduce Susan’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 Susan’s asked a former conspirator—Anna Xenos, aka Dial, short for Dialectic—to act as go-between for a meet with Che. Susan’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 (“sleek as a porpoise, sheathed in a good half-inch-thick coat of fat”), John the Rabbitoh (“he smelled of cut grass and radiator hose and two-stroke fuel”), 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, Carey’s clever wordplay dazzles sufficiently to keep such flaws behind the curtain, mostly hidden.