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Theft: A Love Story

By Peter Carey

Two-time Booker-winner Peter Carey’s tenth novel, set in 1980s Australia, Tokyo and New York, concerns 35-year-old painter Michael Boone, more commonly known as Butcher Bones, since he hails – like Carey himself – from the small town of Bacchus Marsh, near Melbourne, where his family ran the local butcher’s shop. Butcher’s narration of an elaborate art fraud, to which he has been an unwitting accomplice, is interspersed sporadically with the contributions of Hugh, nicknamed ‘Slow Bones’, Butcher’s ‘damaged two hundred and twenty pound brother’, a sort of idiot savant in the mode of Benjy in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and just as affecting. Having lost practically everything else, Butcher is still lumbered with looking after Hugh as his charge.
For Butcher has been having a rather hard time of it lately. Recently divorced, he has lost not only his house and studio in Sydney, but also custody of his much-loved 8-year-old son, to his ex-wife, whom he terms ‘the alimony whore’. On top of all that, he has served time in prison (an experience not much explored in the book), for trying to retrieve some of his most cherished paintings, which also went to his former spouse when they were declared ‘marital assets’.
So it is that, as Butcher tells us, ‘Emerging from Long Bay Prison in the bleak spring of 1980, I learned I was to be rushed immediately to northern New South Wales where, although I would have almost no money to spend on myself, it was thought that I might, if I could only cut down on my drinking, afford to paint small works and care for Hugh… My lawyers, dealers, collectors had all come together to save me.’
With only Hugh for company, the formerly famous artist is reduced to being a caretaker for his biggest collector, the unscrupulous Jean-Paul, who has made his money running dodgy nursing homes. But, deviously resourceful as ever, Butcher is soon getting his hands on proper paint and materials, and charging them to Jean Paul’s account at the local store.
Then, out of nowhere, the mysterious Marlene turns up one stormy night, clad in a pair of Manolo Blahniks. Claiming that the brothers’ friend and neighbour, Dozy Boylan, owns what may be an original Jacques Liebovitz, she ropes Butcher into her grander schemes. For the deceased Liebovitz is a painter much admired by Butcher, and a formative influence on him, and Marlene just happens to be his daughter-in-law. This means that her husband Olivier exercises the droit moral, or right of verifying his father’s paintings, although he knows absolutely nothing about visual art. This prerogative he inherited from his mother, who in her turn was none too choosy about the work she allowed to be attributed to her estranged husband, if the price was right.
It turns out that Marlene is from the same neck of the woods as Butcher; they hit it off and embark on a passionate affair. An art agent herself, with ‘an eye’ for what’s good, she gets him an exhibition in Tokyo, and sets about restoring his reputation. The plot gets progressively convoluted after that, but the purport is that the art world is crawling with dealers who would better be described as con artists, grifters scamming their way to whatever they can make. In this they prey on the greed of buyers, who view art as nothing more than a long-term investment. ‘How do you know how much to pay if you don’t know what it’s worth?’ is an apposite refrain throughout the book. Marlene, it transpires, is not above suspicion in these matters either.

 

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There has been much brouhaha about this novel as a roman a clef, to the extent that in some quarters it seems that no clef is needed, the immediate presumption being that it is about Carey’s ex-wife. Such readings are grossly simple-minded. More serious criticisms are that the narrative does tend to reinforce the Australian stereotype of loutish machismo. The idealised presentation of Marlene is perfunctorily clichéd, Carey not bothering to get beyond the ‘blonde in heels’ he presumes any man will fall for. It doesn’t help that we never get to see things from her point-of-view. Similarly, the ex-wife never gets a word in.
There is also a problem with visualising what exactly Butcher’s paintings look like. Too often, when a writer wants to explore the creative process, but doesn’t want to write a book about a writer writing a book, he comes at the theme obliquely via art or music. But maybe the expertise of an inside job is actually what’s required.
Other cavils are that it is difficult to believe that a mid-career artist can go from fame to obscurity so quickly. Also, a raft of unaccredited Bob Dylan references towards the end, courtesy of Olivier, fails as an enjoyable in-joke, seeming merely gratuitous.
On the plus side, what the novel does really well is to show how, for all the venality of the world, the power of art can transform forever the lives of disadvantaged, rural, working class people, with no background in it, if their love for it is strong enough. There’s no accounting for talent.
But the fact remains that there are better thrillers around than this story, and better literary fiction as well, and Carey may have fallen between two stools here. He has also written better fiction himself, so Theft is probably not the novel to grant him an unprecedented third Booker win.

First published in The Sunday Independent

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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