Books extract: Peter Carey's 'His Illegal Self'

Carey's new novel tells of radical politics and of the love between a woman and a young boy

She was on the 2 platform just as the train from Albany came in, and when she boarded she found a telephone waiting, directly opposite her. If not for this she might never have called Susan Selkirk. But she was high on life, on possibility, and she was on the phone before she even took a seat... 215? Philly? She wasn't sure. It took six of her quarters. Ridiculous. Like phoning a rock star or a famous author whom your aunt had known, something you only did because you could, because you were not nobody.

Hello, Susan. It's Dial.

Give me your number, said someone, not Susan. We'll call you back.

There was a number, too. She gave it, not unhappy to see a few quarters returned.

She waited for the famous felon as if she were herself some kind of actor in a film, resting her head against the glass, watching the power lines dance like sheet music across the reflection of her extraordinary dress. She was about to talk to America's most-wanted woman. She was going to MoMA before it closed this afternoon. She was staying with her friend Madeleine on West 14th Street. That's all she knew about her future. She had no lover, no father or mother, no home but Boston whose "rapcha" and "capcha" occasionally burst the surface of her speech. She watched the power lines rising and falling beside the Hudson and thought, Remember this moment, how beautiful and strange the world is.

When the phone rang, she saw her hair reflected in the sky.

Hello.

Well, said that piercing girlie voice, if it's not the "bvains." Hi, she said not at all offended by the "bvains." Rather pleased.

Far out, cried Susan. Dial had forgotten how she sounded, the shrill pitch.

What a coincidence, Susan said. Listen I'm going on vacation, you dig. I was just wondering where you are?

Dial could see the conductors walking through the car. The conductor could see her. But she could see Susan Selkirk in the Boston Globe, photographed from the ceiling of the Bronxville Chase Manhattan. What might or might not have been a revolver was in her hand. That was what had happened to SDS. Students for a Democratic Society?

No shit, said Susan. I was just talking to my mom about you. I mean, like, now.

Your mom remembered me?

She'd rather remember you than me. But listen, I sort of was wanting to say hi to my guy.

Which guy?

He was your guy too.

On the telephone, blasting through Croton-on-Hudson, Dial blushed, pulling her hair by the roots, looking at her staring face in the glass.

The baby, Susan Selkirk said. For Christ's sake. I mean my son.

Right.

Call back, Susan Selkirk said suddenly. Tonight. Can you do that for me? Please, please. This is not cool, not now.

I'm going out to see The Godfather with Madeleine.

You're seeing the fucking Godfather.

Sure. Why not?

There was a silence and Dial didn't rush to fill it.

Sure, said Susan, why the fuck not!

Another silence.

I need this favor, Susan said at last. If not for me, then for the Movement.

Dial was a sucker. Susan knew she was a sucker. She wandered back down through the car, hefting her awkward heavy pack, laughing incredulously at herself, at Susan Selkirk who could still issue commands like the revolution was a family business. For the Movement! Please.

She tucked the phone number in her purse and let her mood be made by bigger things, by the great luxury of time, a fall day with sunshine, and the Hudson still as glass. If Susan Selkirk affected her at all, it was only to highlight the richness of her new life which was intensifying daily – Vassar, MoMA, Manhattan, all the possibilities suggested by this gorgeous ride beside the Hudson with the sun pushing down above the golden Palisades.

By the time the train dipped underground at 125th Street, she had forgotten Susan Selkirk. And it was only very late that night, on calculating her expenses and counting the remaining money in her purse, that she found the scrap of paper. When she called it was not because of any deep friendship for Susan. But she had all the time in the world, so she made an arrangement to meet her near Clark Street in Brooklyn. Susan, quite typically, sent two strangers to interrogate her and again she was too curious to be decently offended.

Later all she would remember was their teeth, big and long on one, small and square on the other, but both young women's mouths were full of perfectly straight teeth, clear signs of class that contradicted their dowdy clothes which were a sort of depressed portrait of the unhappy working class. Their hair had been cut gracelessly with kitchen scissors and they had about them a severe judgmental quality that made Dial feel too tall, too pretty, too frivolous for their company.

You know the kid, right? Her son?

Once I did. Freshman year.

She wants to see her son.

Susan does?

We don't use names. OK.

The one with the long teeth was tall and skinny. Her dowdy little sweater was gray cashmere. She lit a cigarette and smoked it with both hands pushed in the pockets of her thrift store coat.

OK, said Dial. It did not help her that she noticed the privileged teeth, the expensive sweater. Neither undercut the moral authority she had been raised to respect. She never could be far enough left for Susan, SDS, herself. She thought the student left were fantasists, yet when the Maoists told her she would be shot after the revolution she was inclined to believe it was true.

She's going on vacation, dig?

Dial understood that vacation was code for something else but she was staring at the girl's stringy blond hair, wondering if there was something in that un-made-up face, something under those pressing dark eyebrows, that might give Dial human entry.

It's dangerous, the girl said, looking over her shoulder at a skinny beat-up plane tree as if its shivery branches might reveal a bug. The grandmother will let you take him.

Mrs Selkirk has no idea who I am.

Yes, she does. If you meet with her at 11, you take the kid back by noon. Done. That's all we're asking. You will have done your little bit.

Little bit, thought Dial. You patronizing little bitch. Do you actually know Phoebe Selkirk? she asked the short one. Have you met her?

Listen, Susan is begging you. You know, like begging, man.

Dial thought, You said her name, moron. Plus where does all this "man" shit come from.

Oh sure, she said.

You know why the old lady trusts you? You want to know? You want to just stand there being sarcastic?

Dial shrugged. But of course she wished to know.

You never talked to the Post.

And that, of course, was completely true. Not just the Post but the News, the Globe, even the Times. And that was why she would call Grandma Selkirk, because the old lady, at least, had seen the steel at Dial's core, that although she could not stand Phoebe Selkirk's Upper East Side ass, she would never betray her trust. That was who she was. *

© Peter Carey 2008

'His Illegal Self' by Peter Carey is published by Faber, £16.99

About the author

Peter Carey was born in Victoria, Australia, in 1943. He is the author of 10 novels, two of which have won the Booker Prize, and three the Miles Franklin Literary Award. He lives in New York, and is director of the Hunter Collage MFA program in creative writing.

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders