Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


His Illegal Self by Peter Carey








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On one level, Peter Carey’s new novel, His Illegal Self, is the story of a boy who is loved. The boy is seven-year-old Che Selkirk, who is loved and cared for by his grandmother on New York’s Upper East Side. His parents went on the run (perhaps the Weather Underground) when Che was a toddler, and he hasn’t seen them since. A woman named Dial leaves her job at Vassar and takes Che from his apartment, first to his mother in Philadelphia, then to his father on the West Coast, and eventually to Australia, where they hide out in a hippie commune. Everyone extends love to Che. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 3, pp. 16-17:


Except for one single photograph, the boy had never seen his dad, not even on TV. There had been no television permitted in Grandma's house on Kenoza Lake, so after he had helped light the fires in fall the boy picked among the high musty shelves of paperbacks—some words as plain as pebbles, many more that held their secrets like the crunchy bodies of wasps or grasshoppers. He could read some, as he liked to say. Upstairs there was a proper library with a sliding ladder and heavy books containing engravings of fish and elk and small flowers with German names which made him sad. On the big torn sofas where he peered into these treasures, there was likely to be an abandoned Kipling or Rider Haggard or Robert Louis Stevenson which his grandma would continue with at dusk. In this silky water-stained room with its slatted squinting views across the lake, there was a big glowing valve radio which played only static and a wailing oscillating electric cry, some deep and secret sadness he imagined coming from beneath the choppy water slapping at the dock below.

Down in the city, at the Belvedere, there was a pink GE portable TV which always sat on the marble kitchen counter­top; once, when he thought his grandma was napping, he plugged it in. This was the only time she hurt him, twisting his arm and holding his chin so he could not escape her eyes. She spit, she was so crazy—he must not watch TV

Not ever.

Her given reason was as tangled as old nylon line, snagged with hooks and spinners and white oxidized lead weights, but the true reason he was not allowed to watch was straight and short and he learned it from Gladys the Haitian maid—you don't be getting yourself upset seeing your mommy and daddy in the hands of the po-lees. You never do forget a thing like that.

Cameron. Fox was the son of the art dealers in 5D. He had been expelled from Groton on account of the hair he would not cut, maybe something else as well. Grandma paid Cameron to be a babysitter. She had no idea.

It was in Cameron's room the boy saw the poster of Che Guevara and learned who he was and why he had no mother and father. Not even Gladys was going to tell him this stuff. After his mother and the Dobbs Street Cell had robbed the bank in Bronxville, a judge had given Che to the permanent care of his grandma. That's what Cameron said. You got a right to know, man. Cameron was sixteen. He said, Your grandpa threw a Buddha out the D line window. A fucking Buddha, man. He's a cool old guy. I smelled him smoking weed out on the stairs. Do you get to hang out with him?

No chance. No way. The one time they found Grandpa and the Poison Dwarf at Sixty-second Street, the boy and his grandma went to the Carlyle.

Cameron told the boy he was a political prisoner locked up at Kenoza Lake. His grandma made him play ludo which was a game from, like, a century before. Cameron gave him a full-page picture of his father from Life. Cameron read him the caption. Beyond your command. His dad was cool looking, with wild fair hair. He held his fingers in a V.

He looks like you, said Cameron Fox. You should get this framed, he said. Your father is a great American.


Carey’s prose is always finely written, and his visual narration provides clear description. He’s best at character insight, and throughout His Illegal Self, we fell the pulls and tugs of love and longing, made all the more compelling by the outlaw and fugitive experience.


Steve Hopkins, May 15, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the June 2008 issue of Executive Times


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