HIS ILLEGAL SELF, by Peter Carey, Knopf, 275 pages, $24.95.

Best known for "The True History of the Kelly Gang," Booker Prize-winning Australian novelist Peter Carey seems to have an affinity for outlaws. His new book, his 13th, "His Illegal Self," carries that theme as he tells the story of Che, often mispronounced Jay, and Dial, a pretty young woman who represents the hippie generation of the late '60s and early '70s.

Failing to realize she is being used by others, Dial, as she calls herself, steals Che, an 8-year-old boy, from his Grandma Selkirk, who thinks she is borrowing him for one hour. Instead, the eccentrically dressed woman takes him out of New York and flies him to Australia without ever telling the boy or the grandmother what she is doing.

Che doesn't object to the kidnapping because he thinks the young woman is his real mother, whom he has never met — and he likes her, even though she is quite awkward much of the time. A bit strange for someone who is a faculty member of English at Vassar College. She wins him over by reading to him for several hours.

Che has been hoping his real parents, who were radical student activists at Harvard, would show up one day to take him home. But he is surprised and puzzled when he lands in a hippie commune in the jungle of tropical Queensland. He keeps wondering when his real father will appear.

Meanwhile, Dial leads the boy from one dangerous place to another, hooking up with two drugged and scary men who threaten them, drive them to various weird places and steal their money.

The book is written as if it were seen through the eyes of the 8-year-old, with short, incomplete, ambiguous sentences that often leave the reader wondering what he/she is missing. The vocabulary often seems pulled out of the air but is only occasionally obscene.

Billed by the publisher as "the best fictional work to explore the militant radical underground of the late 1960s and early '70s," it is instead a misguided, failed attempt to either comprehend or explain that period. Some readers are apt to keep reading simply because of curiosity, but continued reading will not satisfy.

The novel just doesn't work.

The characters remain enigmatic and unlikable, except for the boy, from beginning to end. Lots of names of real people alleged to be hippies in the '60s are used, but that is the extent of the historical basis. As for Australia, the author knows the lay of the land. Not enough in this case.

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