February 2008

Arts & Letters

Fugitive Days

By Janette Turner Hospital
Peter Carey’s ‘His Illegal Self’ & its antecedents

In 1953, the very year that the Rosenbergs were executed as communist spies, Arthur Miller's The Crucible was packing the Martin Beck Theater on Broadway. At the time, the US was feverish with paranoia. Senator Joseph McCarthy was in the bully pulpit and the witch-hunting of the House Un-American Activities Committee was in full swing. The Crucible, both a box-office and critical success, was about witch-hunts, rigged trials, communal hysteria and executions. It was, however, safely set in 1692 in Massachusetts and had - or so it seemed - nothing to do with either communism or McCarthy. Though the Salem witch trials were well-documented history, Arthur Miller freely admitted that the play "was not reportage of any kind ... what I was doing was writing a fictional story about an important theme."

The important theme was in code, though no one who put his mind to it had any trouble with the deciphering. The '50s were dangerous times, not only for political activists but for anyone who took democracy too literally. After the accusations and interrogations of 1950, even President Truman (never soft on the Red Menace) began to wince publicly about the senator from Wisconsin, noting in the New York Times of 29 July 1951:


This malicious propaganda has gone so far that on the Fourth of July, over in Madison, Wisconsin, people were afraid to say they believed in the Declaration of Independence. A hundred and twelve people were asked to sign a petition that contained nothing except quotations from the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. One hundred and eleven of these people refused to sign that paper - many of them because they were afraid that it was some kind of subversive document and that they would lose their jobs or be called Communists.


The fear was justified. Arthur Miller himself had been hauled up before the HUAC for interrogation. So how was it possible that his play was lighting up Broadway, and that the theatre was not blacklisted? The obvious trick up Miller's sleeve dates at least to the second century BC, when the writer of the Book of Daniel set his tale of Nebuchadnezzar and the fiery furnace in the safely distant sixth century BC in order - so scholars claim - to encourage the covert resistance movement against Antiochus Epiphanes. The past, therefore, is a salutary narrative device: it is not only morally instructive; it is a Safe House.

Thus, when EL Doctorow published The Book of Daniel (1971) in the midst of the next national convulsion - the era of the Vietnam War and of the bitter clash of Hawks and Doves - he engaged in a probing meditation on his political present by situating it 20 years in the past, in the time of the Rosenbergs. The novel's narrator, Daniel, recounting that past, lives in the present of the late '60s, sifting memory and current events. The point of view is always Daniel's, who is a rigorously honest thinker casting about for meaning: the meaning of the executions of his parents, the meaning of the wrecked lives of their orphaned children, the meaning of political demonisation and of communal hysteria.

Doctorow's Daniel and his institutionalised sister are fictional versions of the real children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two boys respectively aged ten and six at the time of their parents' execution. The Rosenberg children, shunted between relatives and institutional shelters during the three-year imprisonment of their parents, were subsequently adopted by the Meeropols (another couple with passionate left-wing convictions, Abel Meeropol, under a pseudonym, having written the anti-lynching protest song ‘Strange Fruit', made famous by Billie Holiday). The fictional Daniel subjects both sets of parents - biological and adoptive - to an evaluation that is as unsparing as it is compassionate.

Documentary accuracy is not Doctorow's concern in this novel, though (like Miller) he takes for granted that the reader is aware of, and is knowledgeable about, the historical underpinning. Like Miller, he re-imagines the past in order to illuminate the present. He uses Daniel's story to assess both the history of political hysteria and the history of punishment for political dissent. You could say of Doctorow's novel what Robert Meeropol, one of the Rosenberg children, said of his own autobiography (An Execution in the Family: One Son's Journey, published in 2003 on the fiftieth anniversary of his parents' death): "This book is not about history, it's about today ..."

Peter Carey's new novel, His Illegal Self (Random House, 272 pp; $45), is also set in the past, while suggesting a political philosophy (albeit a fuzzy and unfocused one) about our present political preoccupation with terrorism. Moreover, it reads oddly like a reprise of The Book of Daniel, and the real-life referents of its fictional characters - two radically left-wing couples - bear an eerie similarity to the Rosenbergs and Meeropols. (Such oddities are matters of cyclical history, not Carey's imagination.) The novel, set in 1972, is loosely based on the Weathermen - the militant revolutionary underground group of the late '60s and early '70s - though chronological contortions are involved.

Chesa Boudin, currently a Rhodes scholar, is the shadow behind Carey's seven-year-old protagonist, Che. (The choice of name is a stroke of brilliance on Carey's part, signalling both the quasi-documentary link and the revolutionary ideology of the parents, though chesa - according to Boudin's mother, Kathy - is actually Swahili for "dancing feet".) Kathy Boudin, daughter of an affluent New York Jewish family of left-wing intellectuals, herself a brilliant Bryn Mawr graduate who had spent a student-exchange year in the Soviet Union, joined the Weathermen in the late '60s. In l970, she was a survivor of the accidental explosion in Greenwich Village in which other members of the group died. Chesa, her son by another Weatherman, David Gilbert, was born in 1980. Both parents were involved in the notorious act perpetrated jointly by remnant members of the Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army: the violent robbery of an armoured car in 1981, during which a Brinks guard and two police officers were murdered. Boudin and Gilbert were the drivers of getaway cars, and received life sentences (Boudin was paroled in 2003). Chesa had been left with a babysitter, but was subsequently adopted by two other Weathermen - Bernadine Dohrn, now a law professor at Northwestern, and Bill Ayers, now an education professor at the University of Illinois - who did not take part in the Brinks robbery and served only brief prison sentences for their roles in Weathermen attacks of the '70s.

In the 1972 of Carey's novel, Susan Selkirk (the Kathy Boudin figure) is killed in an accidental explosion in a bomb-making house in Philadelphia; David Rubbo (the fictional version of Gilbert, and a very nasty piece of work indeed) is hiding out with the Black Liberation Army on the west coast. The babysitter steps out of the wings to take a leading role in His Illegal Self. On the day of the explosion, she is serving as unwitting go-between, collecting seven-year-old Che from his doting and grief-stricken grandmother in Manhattan and taking him for a secret and supposedly brief rendezvous with his fugitive mother at the Port Authority Terminal. The babysitter, a former Movement member, realises too late that she is being manipulated by Susan Selkirk. At the Port Authority, she receives instructions to take a Greyhound bus to Philadelphia. There, on a TV monitor in the bus station, she sees a newsflash: the house she was about to visit, the house where mother and child were to be reunited, has just blown up. Susan Selkirk is dead. Meanwhile, Grandma Selkirk has reported the kidnapping of her grandson.

A mad dash ensues as the babysitter, with the child in tow, makes her way to the west coast, meets with Rubbo and the revolutionary remnant, and is given an airline ticket to Australia and the names of contacts. She is assured by Rubbo (her former lover, who still has an erotic and ideological hold on her) that she and the child will be safe and cared for in Australia. "We've got people there," she is told, and the Movement provides passports and cash. The Sydney contacts turn out to be non-existent, but Anna the babysitter, known to the Movement as Dial - short for dialectic - drifts north to Queensland and rather vaguely and fortuitously falls in with a loosely organised commune of hippies in the Yandina-Eumundi-Noosa area. Comparisons are made between Australian and American anti-war sentiment, between Bjelke-Petersen's "police state" and Nixon's America, though these seem vague and superficial. There is nothing here to equal the intellectual range and depth of Doctorow's novel.

Anna is a fond, though inattentive and neglectful, mother surrogate for Che. She becomes sexually involved with one of the hippies, Trevor, a Barnardo boy who is - by reason of personal history - far more attuned to Che's bewilderment and desolation. It is Trevor who proposes the solution: the arranging of contact with Grandma Selkirk and the safe passage of Che back to New York without risk to Anna's "freedom", which will apparently consist of an undocumented existence on the lam in Queensland for the term of her unnatural life.

The strength and beauty of Carey's novel lies in the perspective of his very young protagonist. Che is bewildered, frightened, vulnerable, wise, completely loveable. His grandmother, protectively, had banned both TV and newspapers from his universe, so Che has had to assemble his history and his identity from overheard fragments and from furtively collected newspaper clippings. These are his talismanic "papers", which he keeps bundled in rubber bands in secret. He knows his parents are famous. He fantasises about them constantly. He believes that one day they will come for him. He is precociously knowledgeable about the acronyms (SDS, RYM, PL) for the splintered revolutionary groups: Students for a Democratic Society, the Revolutionary Youth Movement, Progressive Labor. When Anna collects him from his grandmother, he believes this is the great moment. An atavistic memory of her body perfume - for she was his babysitter in the first months of his life - convinces him that she is his mother. She is taking him to meet his father. He is ecstatic. Anna, like his grandmother, keeps shielding him from the truth. Che's gradual disillusionment, and his growing awareness that his mother is dead and that his father simply wants to be rid of him, constitute the moving core of the novel.

Revolutionary movements have a perverse habit of erecting, with disturbing rapidity, systems as rigidly repressive as those which they have sworn to overthrow. Carey exposes this psychological foible powerfully in two separate dramatic situations. The first occurs when Anna connects with the revolutionary cadre (including the obnoxious Rubbo) in Seattle. Che senses that the group is angry with him and angry with Anna because their faces have been flashed on national television. They have put the other fugitives at risk. Frightened, he hides behind a sofa and listens as "they began to beat on her." "She was a petit bourgeois adventurist. And she brings this fucking brat here, now ... She thinks the revolution is a part-time job."

On the other side of the world, the eco-loving, blissed-out hippies are just as rigid and judgemental about Che's adopted kitten, which is killing birds. Either the cat goes or you go, the commune declares. "I know you think it's cruel, Rebecca said, but considering he's a murderer ... The feral cat is declared as a class two species under the Land Protection Act." The hippies set a trap and the kitten's paw is savagely crushed.

In choosing a very young protagonist, Carey gains the reader's sympathy, but he loses the edgy perspective and sardonic intellectual commentary of Doctorow's Daniel, who moves fluidly between visceral childhood fear and adult analysis. In an apparent attempt to compensate, Carey uses multiple adult points of view, but this is unevenly done. There are frequent jarring shifts and authorial intrusions. There are occasional momentary interjections of Che's adult sensibility - a sort of futuristic retrospective - but these are so scattershot and slight that they suggest editorial oversight rather than depth of perspective: "Then the generator failed, so the boy would recall when he only lived inside the memory of a man. Under hypnotism of East Seventy-sixth Street he would once more see [these things] ..."

Other instances of editorial carelessness disrupt the reader's willing suspension of disbelief. Anna and Che find the Queensland air "as muggy as Jackson, Mississippi", where neither has ever been; the Queensland hippies speak of papayas, rather than pawpaws; Trevor is rather young to be a Barnardo boy, since very few children were sent out after World War II, and those few went to Sydney or Melbourne; Trevor claims to have grown up in the orphanage in Adelaide where he was bashed about by the Brothers, but there was only ever one Barnardo home in South Australia and that was run by the Sisters of Mercy.

There are also stylistic infelicities, the most irritating of which are the frequent over-the-top (and quite unnecessary) images to indicate Che's state of anxiety: "His stomach filled with bubbles like an ice-cream float ... The boy's stomach tasted like the inside of a tuna can ... The boy's stomach was a football of bad old air ... His heart was like a washing machine inside his ears ... His own breath was held like a crumpled milk carton in his bony chest."

The novel's major weakness, however, is its female protagonist, Anna, who is never really credible as a character. A blue-collar girl from South Boston, she wins a scholarship, graduates from Harvard and gets caught up in the revolutionary movement - apparently, we are asked to believe, because she yearns for the approval of the affluent intellectual elite and because she yearns sexually for David Rubbo. Her only discernible political philosophy is bitterness; her only political action, blame. She despises everyone, especially herself. "She hated being a good girl but that was what she had always been ... She was a dog on a leash ... She was tied to the little rich boy" whose grandmother is a "rich spoiled bitch ..." and whose mother "screwed both of us".

When the novel opens, Anna has just been offered a position as an assistant professor at Vassar, but puts all in jeopardy for the sheer thrill of being asked to effect a meeting between a child and "the most wanted woman in America". It is not remotely convincing that this intellectual powerhouse, admittedly caught in a murky situation, would compound her legal liability by fleeing the country with a child she did not intentionally abduct, nor is her hapless drifting with the hippies believable. Driving away from the commune, "she did not know which way led back to Brisbane ... She had planned to ask which way was south ..." Really? A Harvard grad and Vassar prof couldn't figure that out? Apparently, however, she does know which way is north, since she turns around and drives back to Yandina.

Nevertheless, in spite of this large flaw, the novel is suffused with the poignant presence of Che and he is a luminous and unforgettable character.

Janette Turner Hospital
Janette Turner Hospital is a Visiting Writer-in-Residence at Columbia University. Her books include Orpheus Lost, Oyster and Forecast: Turbulence, which was published in November 2011.

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