His Illegal Self
by Peter Carey
Peter Carey is no stranger to accolades. In addition to writing nine best-selling novels and winning the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Australian-born author has twice received the famed Man Booker Prize for his works Oscar and Lucinda and The True History of the Kelly Gang.
It may be premature at this point to suggest that Carey think about preparing more room on his trophy shelf. Whether it wins any awards or not, the fact remains that his newest novel, His Illegal Self – a brilliantly unsentimental fiction about trust, love, and dishonesty – is a spectacular return to form after the uneven duo of My Life as a Fake and Theft.
His Illegal Self primarily concerns itself with two characters, Che and Dial. Che is a privileged young boy in 1970s New York, raised by his grandmother in a repressive atmosphere of isolation, kept away from radios or televisions for reasons “as tangled as old nylon line, snagged with hooks and spinners and white oxidized lead weights.”
The rationale soon becomes apparent with the arrival of Dial (short for dialectic), a seemingly freewheeling spirit Che automatically assumes is his mother come back to claim him. This error only becomes one of many, as the pair soon discovers themselves on the run, victims of misunderstanding, misinformation, and plain bad luck.
Their convoluted path eventually leads them to Australia, specifically Queensland, “a police state run by men who never finished high school.” Taking up residence in a dilapidated area of farmland, Che and Dial come up against the triple terrors of punishing climate, anti-American attitudes, and each other’s convoluted feelings toward the other.
To give away more would be to destroy much of the pleasure of Carey’s tale, a wide-ranging chase story that nevertheless achieves a shivering intimacy. Che and Dial, two of the most intriguing literary characters in recent memory, are a pair firmly entrenched in Carey’s adoration of the misfits and outsiders in society, victims of circumstance
Che may be one the finest characters Carey has yet created, and one of the most fully realized representations of a child in modern literature. Innocent and bright, stubborn yet never precocious, nervy yet uncomprehending, Che firmly belongs in the pantheon of great fictional children alongside Roddy Doyle’s title character Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and Wayne Johnston’s Draper Doyle in The Divine Ryans.
After the somewhat constrained Theft, Carey feels loose and invigorated, wielding his command of storytelling with elation and deftness. His deceptively muted language, “some words as plain as pebbles, many more that [hold] their secrets like the crunchy bodies of wasps or grasshoppers,” is a joy to read.
Yet despite this newfound release, His Illegal Self never loses control and become a showcase for Carey’s cleverness. He keeps an even hand on the more bizarre turns, and even as the narrative flows into disquieting tragedy and tears, the emotional knot of Che and Dial remains the novel’s touching core.
His Illegal Self is a wonderful novel, Carey’s best since The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith. If, as hinted throughout the pages, there is more to tell about Che’s life, Carey had best take his time on the sequel. His Illegal Self is too good to soil with a lesser follow-up.
Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press.