About the Author
Miles Franklin Literary Award. Born in Australia, he now lives in New York City.
Date of Birth:May 7, 1943
Place of Birth:Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, Australia
Education:Monash University (no degree)
Read an Excerpt
There were no photographs of the boy's father in the house upstate. He had been persona non grata since Christmas 1964, six months before the boy was born. There were plenty of pictures of his mom. There she was with short blond hair, her eyes so white against her tan. And that was her also, with black hair, not even a sister to the blonde girl, although maybe they shared a kind of bright attention.
She was an actress like her grandma, it was said. She could change herself into anyone. The boy had no reason to disbelieve this, not having seen his mother since the age of two. She was the prodigal daughter, the damaged saint, like the icon that Grandpa once brought back from Athens—shining silver, musky incense—although no one had ever told the boy how his mother smelled.
Then, when the boy was almost eight, a woman stepped out of the elevator into the apartment on East Sixty-second Street and he recognized her straightaway. No one had told him to expect it.
That was pretty typical of growing up with Grandma Selkirk. You were some kind of lovely insect, expected to know things through your feelers, by the kaleidoscope patterns in the others' eyes. No one would dream of saying, Here is your mother returned to you. Instead his grandma told him to put on his sweater. She collected her purse, found her keys and then all three of them walked down to Bloomingdale's as if it were a deli. This was normal life. Across Park, down Lex. The boy stood close beside the splendid stranger with the lumpy khaki pack strapped onto her back. That was her blood, he could hear it now, pounding in his ears. He had imagined her a wound-up spring, light, bright, blonde, like Grandma in full whir. She was completely different; she was just the same. By the time they were in Bloomingdale's she was arguing about his name.
What did you just call Che? she asked the grandma.
His name, replied Grandma Selkirk, ruffling the boy's darkening summer hair. That's what I called him. She gave the mother a bright white smile. The boy thought, Oh, oh!
It sounded like Jay, the mother said.
The grandma turned sharply to the shopgirl who was busy staring at the hippie mother.
Let me try the Artemis.
Grandma Selkirk was what they call an Upper East Side woman—cheekbones, tailored gray hair—but that was not what she called herself. I am the last bohemian, she liked to say, to the boy, particularly, meaning that no one told her what to do, at least not since Pa Selkirk had thrown the Buddha out the window and gone to live with the Poison Dwarf.
Grandpa had done a whole heap of other things besides, like giving up his board seat, like going spiritual. When Grandpa moved out, Grandma moved out too. The Park Avenue apartment was hers, always had been, but now they used it maybe once a month. Instead they spent their time on Kenoza Lake near Jeffersonville, New York, a town of 400 where "no one" lived. Grandma made raku pots and rowed a heavy clinker boat. The boy hardly saw his grandpa after that, except sometimes there were postcards with very small handwriting. Buster Selkirk could fit a whole ball game on a single card.
For these last five years it had been just Grandma and the boy together and she threaded the squirming live bait to hook the largemouth bass and, also, called him Jay instead of Che. There were no kids to play with. There were no pets because Grandma was allergic. But in fall there were Cox's pippins, wild storms, bare feet, warm mud and the crushed-glass stars spilling across the cooling sky. You can't learn these things anywhere, the grandma said. She said she planned to bring him up Victorian. It was better than "all this."
He was christened Che, right?
Grandma's wrist was pale and smooth as a flounder's belly. The sunny side of her arm was brown but she had dabbed the perfume on the white side—blue blood, that's what he thought, looking at the veins.
Christened? His father is a Jew, the grandma said. This fragrance is too old for her, she told the Bloomingdale's woman who raised a cautious eyebrow at the mother. The mother shrugged as if to say, What are you going to do? Too floral, Grandma Selkirk said without doubting she would know.
So it's Jay?
Grandma spun around and the boy's stomach gave a squishy sort of lurch. Why are you arguing with me? she whispered. Are you emotionally tone-deaf?
The salesgirl pursed her lips in violent sympathy.
Give me the Chanel, said Grandma Selkirk. While the salesgirl wrapped the perfume, Grandma Selkirk wrote a check. Then she took her pale kid gloves from the glass countertop. The boy watched as she drew them onto each finger, thick as eel skin. He could taste it in his mouth.
You want me to call him Che in Bloomingdale's, his grandma hissed, finally presenting the gift to the mother.
Shush, the mother said.
The grandma raised her eyebrows violently.
Go with the flow, said the mother. The boy petted her on the hip and found her soft, uncorseted.
The flow? The grandma had a bright, fright smile and angry light blue eyes. Go with the flow!
Thank you, the girl said, for shopping at Bloomingdale's.
The grandma's attention was all on the mother. Is that what Communists believe? Che, she cried, waving her gloved hand as in charades.
I'm not a Communist. OK?
The boy wanted only peace. He followed up behind, his stomach churning.
Che, Che! Go with the flow! Look at you! Do you think you could make yourself a tiny bit more ridiculous?
The boy considered his illegal mother. He knew who she was although no one would say it outright. He knew her the way he was used to knowing everything important, from hints and whispers, by hearing someone talking on the phone, although this particular event was so much clearer, had been since the minute she blew into the apartment, the way she held him in her arms and squeezed the air from him and kissed his neck. He had thought of her so many nights and here she was, exactly the same, completely different—honey-colored skin and tangled hair in fifteen shades. She had Hindu necklaces, little silver bells around her ankles, an angel sent by God.
Grandma Selkirk plucked at the Hindu beads. What is this? This is what the working class is wearing now?
I am the working class, she said. By definition.
The boy squeezed the grandma's hand but she snatched it free. Where's his father? They keep showing his face on television. Is he going with the flow as well?
The boy burped quietly in his hand. No one could have heard him but Grandma brushed at the air, as if grabbing at a fly. I called him Jay because I was worried for you, she said at last. Maybe it should have been John Doe. God help me, she cried, and the crowds parted before her. Now I understand I was an idiot to worry.
The mother raised her eyebrows at the boy and, finally, reached to take his hand. He was pleased by how it folded around his, soothing, comfortable. She tickled his palm in secret. He smiled up. She smiled down. All around them Grandma raged.
For this, we paid for Harvard. She sighed. Some Rosenbergs.
The boy was deaf, in love. By now they were out on Lexington Avenue and his grandma was looking for a taxi. The first cab would be theirs, always was. Except that now his hand was inside his true mother's hand and they were marsupials running down into the subway, laughing.
In Bloomingdale's everything had been so white and bright with glistening brass. Now they raced down the steps. He could have flown.
At the turnstiles she released his hand and pushed him under. She slipped off her pack. He was giddy, giggling. She was laughing too. They had entered another planet, and as they pushed down to the platform the ceiling was slimed with alien rust and the floor was flecked and speckled with black gum—so this was the real world that had been crying to him from beneath the grating up on Lex.
They ran together to the local, and his heart was pounding and his stomach was filled with bubbles like an ice-cream float. She took his hand once more and kissed it, stumbling.
The 6 train carried him through the dark, wire skeins unraveling, his entire life changing all at once. He burped again. The cars swayed and screeched, thick teams of brutal cables showing in the windowed dark. And then he was in Grand Central first time ever and they set off underground again, hand in hand, slippery together as newborn goats.
Men lived in cardboard boxes. A blind boy rattled dimes and quarters in a tin. The S train waited, painted like a warrior, and they jumped together and the doors closed as cruel as traps, chop, chop, chop, and his face was pushed against his mother's jasmine dress. Her hand held the back of his head. He was underground, as Cameron in 5D had predicted. They will come for you, man. They'll break you out of here.
In the tunnels between Times Square and Port Authority a passing freak raised his fist. Right On! he called.
He knew you, right?
She made a face.
She could not have expected that—he had been studying politics with Cameron.
PL? he asked.
She sort of laughed. Listen to you, she said. Do you know what SDS stands for?
Students for a Democratic Society, he said. PL is Progressive Labor. They're the Maoist fraction. See, you're famous. I know all about you.
I don't think so.
You're sort of like the Weathermen.
I'm pretty sure.
Wrong fraction, baby.
She was teasing him. She shouldn't. He had thought about her every day, forever, lying on the dock beside the lake, where she was burnished, angel sunlight. He knew his daddy was famous too, his face on television, a soldier in the fight. David has changed history.
They waited in line. There was a man with a suitcase tied with bright green rope. He had never been anyplace like this before.
Where are we going? There was a man whose face was cut by lines like string through Grandma's beeswax. He said, This bus going to Philly, little man.
The boy did not know what Philly was.
Stay here, the mother said, and walked away. He was by himself. He did not like that. The mother was across the hallway talking to a tall thin woman with an unhappy face. He went to see what was happening and she grabbed his arm and squeezed it hard. He cried out. He did not know what he had done.
You hurt me.
Shut up, Jay. She might as well have slapped his legs. She was a stranger, with big dark eyebrows twisted across her face.
You called me Jay, he cried.
Shut up. Just don't talk.
You're not allowed to say shut up.
Her eyes got big as saucers. She dragged him from the ticket line and when she released her hold he was still mad at her. He could have run away but he followed her through a beat-up swing door and into a long passage with white cinder blocks and the smell of pee everywhere and when she came to a doorway marked facility, she turned and squatted in front of him.
You've got to be a big boy, she said.
I'm only seven.
I won't call you Che. Don't you call me anything.
Don't you say shut up.
Can I call you Mom?
She paused, her mouth open, searching in his eyes for something.
You can call me Dial, she said at last, her color gone all high.
What sort of name is that. It's a nickname, baby. Now come along. She held him tight against her and he once more smelled her lovely smell. He was exhausted, a little sick feeling.
What is a nickname?
A secret name people use because they like you.
I like you, Dial. Call me by my nickname too.
I like you, Jay, she said. They bought the tickets and found the bus and soon they were crawling through the Lincoln Tunnel and out into the terrible misery of the New Jersey Turnpike. It was the first time he actually remembered being with his mother. He carried the Bloomingdale's bag cuddled on his lap, not thinking, just startled and unsettled to be given what he had wanted most of all.
Reading Group Guide
“Magnificent. . . . Alluring, unexpected, and intensely moving.”
—The Boston Globe
The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enliven your group's discussion of the new novel by two-time Booker Prize–winner Peter Carey.
1. Peter Carey is frequently drawn to writing about outlaws and outcasts. Why do you think this is? Why do we like to read about such characters?
2. What do you think Che's personal and social values are? How has his life been shaped by the lives of his parents, even though he has not been raised by them?
3. Anna Xenos is nicknamed “Dial” (short for dialectic) by her Harvard classmates. It's a playful nickname, given because Dial will argue both opposing sides of an argument, but do you think that the novel itself is in any way dialectical?
4. Late in the novel, Dial feels that she had “brought all this about. If only she had not done this. If only she had not done that. Everything she touched was broken” [p. 263]. Is she right? How might she have acted differently?
5. Dial tells Che, “You're a pretty amazing kid” [p. 271]. In what ways is Che an amazing kid? What is unusual about the way he sees the world?
6. Dial says of her actions: “You take the kid to the father, but the father doesn't want to know. By then you are accused of kidnapping. You get frightened. You run away. Dumb, but not criminal” [p. 245]. Do you think Dial is guilty of kidnapping, or simply of making what seems to be the best choices available in a very difficult situation?
7. In what ways does His Illegal Self illuminate the social and political tensions of the 1960s? What role does Dial's own social status, and her relationship to the Selkirk family, play?
8. Why doesn't Dial tell Che that she's not his mother? Is she simply protecting him, or does she have some unconscious motive for wishing to play the role of his mother?
9. Dial thinks that the most remarkable thing about Che was his “perfect trust” [p. 120]. Does Che lose his trust in Dial and the adults around him over the course of the novel? In what ways can His Illegal Self be read as a story about the loss of innocence?
10. Looking back, Dial regrets the moment when she took Susan Selkirk's number and, “relishing her connection with the famous,” decided to call her [p. 62]. Why does she call Susan and agree to her request? In what sense is this a major turning point in her life?
11. What is life like in the Queensland hippie commune? In what ways does the commune seem to perpetuate, rather than reject, many of the social rules and behaviors it has tried to abandon?
12. What role does Trevor play in the story? How do Che's feelings about him change over the course of the novel?
13. The novel ends with this remarkable sentence: “Even as an adult he would believe that something physical had been left inside him—small, smooth, not a pearl, more lustrous, luminous, a sort of seed which he would eventually pretend to believe was simply a memory, nothing more, that he would carry along the littered path which would be his own comic and occasionally disastrous life” [p. 272]. What is that “seed” which has been left inside Che? What kind of life do you think he is likely to have after such a childhood?
14. What does the novel reveal about our own time? Are there significant parallels between the worlds Carey describes and America's current social and political situation?