Theft: A Love Story, Peter Carey’s seventeenth book and ninth novel, comes as welcome relief after the poorly received Wrong About Japan (2004), about Carey and his twelve-year-old son’s venture into the world of Japanese manga and anime. With Theft, the two-time winner of the Booker Prize is back to fiction and back on formback, that is, to his imaginative retellings of an Australia of strange obsessions (Oscar and Lucinda, 1988), wildly inventive liars (Illywhacker, 1985), alternative histories (The True History of the Kelly Gang, 2000), and Aussie versions of familiar “BritLit” (Jack Maggs, 1997, and The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, 1994). Different as his novels are, they all include what Ali Smith calls “the now trademark fusion of expertise and wonderful blaggery.” Where Carey’s previous novel My Life as a Fake (2003) deals with a literary hoax (and is based on the actual Ern Malley hoax of 1944), Theft: A Love Story is about the world of contemporary art (and the contemporary art market), about which Carey writes expertly (fully crediting his sources in the acknowledgments) and inventively. Far from distracting from the narrative flow, his handling of the technical aspects of painting, authenticating, forging, and selling deepen both the novel and the mystery that serves as Theft’s MacGuffin.
Carey and his protagonist make their way from their shared hometown of Bacchus Marsh in the Australian backwater (“thirty-three miles west of Melbourne, down Anthony’s Cutting. If you are expecting a bog or marsh, there is none, it is just a way of speaking, making no more sense than if the town were named Mount Bacchus”). Seduced by art (as taught in the local school by someone known only as the German Bachelor), Michael “Butcher” Boone decides not to follow in his father’s drunken, bloody footsteps, instead choosing painting over butchering. Four years after his 1971 breakthrough show and after attaining a national reputation, Butcher finds himself in jail for taking back the paintings that a judge once determined were “marital assets” and awarded to his former wife (known only as the Plaintiff).
Like another novel about a wild-man artist, Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth (1944), Theft begins soon after Butcher’s release from jail five years later, in 1980, with Butcher’s reputation destroyed (and with it the market value of his work) and with Butcher exiled to the country home of his patron, Jean-Paul Milan, in northern New South Wales. When he discovers that his neighbor, Dozy Boylan, owns a famous painting, Monsieur et Madame Tourenbois, by Jacques Leibowitz (one of Butcher’s earliest inspirations), “the previously famous artist,” now just a “dogsbody,” is astonished. When the painting is stolen soon after it has been authenticated by Marlene Leibowitz, wife of the painter’s son, Butcher becomes a prime suspect, along with Marlene. The two soon become romantically as well as professionally involved. She arranges an exhibition in Japan; he is flattered and, as an artist, validated, but when he learns that all of his new paintings have been sold to a wealthy Japanese businessman, Butcher feels differently, both because he has been deprived of the art that makes him what he is and because that art has been made part of a commercial system he abhors.
His mentally challenged brother, Hugh, offers another reason: Butcher fears what he does not know, that is, whatever lies beyond the safe confines of Australian provincialism (which Butcher sought to escape by choosing the life of a painter over that of a butcher). Theft is mainly told in alternating Butcher-Hugh chapters (with Butcher occasionally narrating back-to-back chapters), each complementing and sometimes challenging or correcting the other, but with Hugh’s playing the role of second fiddle. The slow-witted Hugh (called “Slow Bones”) is as funny (usually unintentionally so) as he is large (six feet, four inches), his narration sprinkled with capital letters and frequent malapropisms: “Bower House” for “Bauhaus,” “CATTLE-DOGS” for “catalogs,” “KISS AND KIN” for “kith and kin.” Hugh is often quite astute in his own way, however. He understands (even if he comically overstates) the role he plays in the making of Butcher’s painting. He also understands that Butcher’s animosity toward the “art police” investigating the art theft derives in large part from the prison experience which, Hugh says,...
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