Peter Carey is the two-time Booker Prize-winning author of True History of the Kelly Gang and Oscar and Lucinda. His understated, evocative new novel, His Illegal Self, concerns itself with the fraying ends of the hippie movement, after the Democratic National Convention of 1968, after the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) went underground. It's a topic that keeps coming up in fiction and non-fiction—see the recent "Politics Issue" of The New York Times Book Review, in which Carey's book is reviewed alongside several others about "'60s tumult." There's something vaguely ominous about all this looking back, particularly with another sure-to-be-contentious Democratic convention on the horizon.
But Carey's book is less about the events of the period than about its immediate consequences; about what happens when rich kids go revolutionary; about those who create tidal changes, and those who, through naiveté or weakness, are swept up in them.
Set in 1972, the book hinges on the "famous felon" Susan Selkirk, a former SDS member who has gone underground to pursue her revolutionary agenda, leaving her only child, Che, to the custody of her mother (a wealthy old woman who prefers to call the boy "Jay"). Though Susan barely appears in the novel, she nonetheless shapes its events, by asking an old acquaintance, Dial, to facilitate a meeting with her son. Dial agrees, only to find that she has been duped into kidnapping the boy. When Susan suddenly dies, Dial is in over her head before she knows quite what's happening. An inadvertent felon, she's forced to reconnect with the "movement" she thought she'd left behind; members of the underground help her flee, with the boy, to Australia, where they attempt to build a life among off-the-grid hippies.
Carey allows us into his characters' heads in fits and starts, giving us just enough information to feel for them. He's a master of understatement: All we need to know about one man is that he "worked for about an hour. Once he sat and had a drink of something. Once he said, Mary." Dial and Che, meanwhile, have a star-crossed love of sorts, doomed to disaster from day one by misunderstanding and dissemblance. Like the movement itself, in a sense.