October 11, 2006

Between The Covers

This extraordinary book shows why Peter Carey, an Australian novelist now living in New York, has already won two Man Bookers — the most prestigious literary award for fiction in the English speaking world.

Theft is at once original, moving, comic, instructive and dazzling, especially in the way its explosive style suits its oddball characters. These include the brilliant, foul-mouthed, formerly celebrated abstract artist Michael Boone, who describes himself as "a hateful loathsome beast" when he's in the throes of painting; his burly idiot-savant brother, Hugh, oafish and not-quite-right-in-the-head; and a beautiful, strange young woman, the daughter-in-law of a famous artist who has recreated herself as an art expert, and whose increasingly apparent criminal machinations drive Carey's plot.

Add to this potent mix Michael's savaging of the art world, especially venal art dealers, collectors and auction house directors, and Carey serves up an intriguing tale of art lust whose ambiguous theme, enunciated several times, is put in the form of an unanswered question: "How do you know how much to pay if you don't know what it's worth?"

True value, of course, is what an artist knows in his gut, and Michael has a great appreciation of himself, but he also knows that reputation hangs in the balance of what "civilians" say, and most of them, with their "dull complacent certainty . . . and lack of any f****** eye at all," can make or break the best. As one of Carey's epigraphs put it (from Flaubert's Notebook) "Am I to be a king, or just a pig?"

Theft is also, however, what it's subtitle promises: a love story, full of ardor and affection, risk and redemption.

The time is 1980. Michael used to be a highly revered artist with a great following in Sydney — until he went out of fashion ("De Chirico is in. Renoir is out. Van Gogh is hot. Van Gogh has peaked"). His descent coincided with his divorce from someone he refers to only as "The Plaintiff," who took his "marital assets" — canvases, house, studio and young son. Michael responded to this "theft" with his own, committing acts, which landed him in jail.

Recently released, and with a shaved head, he has moved to northern New South Wales, to look after the cottage of one of his benefactors, and to start painting again, ruining his patron's property in the process — what the hell did the patron expect anyway! To complicate matters, Michael (a.k.a. Butcher Bones) takes along with him his huge, demented brother, Hugh (Slow Bones), to whom he is "linked and mirrored like a double bloody helix." Their father, a butcher, who had expected Michael to follow in the trade, and their mother, a Bible-spouting mouse, are dead. The brothers share the narrative in alternating chapters, though Michael gets the first shot.

He doesn't know if his story "is grand enough to be a tragedy," he says in the book's opening line, "although a lot of shitty stuff did happen," but he's egomaniacal to recount events in his signature snarky manner of what happened to him in the Australian outback once Marlene Cook Leibovitz entered his life one rainy afternoon, captivating both brothers.

Hugh, who seems like a heir of John Steinbeck's "Lenny" (Of Mice and Men or of Faulkner's Benjy (The Sound and the Fury), has quite a talent for phrasing, some of it in capital letters, as though he were gasping on rough intuitive insights. "It is hard work to slaughter a beast but when it is done it is done. If you are MAKING ART the labour never ends, no peace, no Sabbath, just eternal churning and cursing . . . "

Carey's done an impressive amount of research on the art world and on the process of painting. The sections on New York are particularly resonant (Michael knew what it meant to be "Lichtenstein in Sydney" but feels he could never be Lichtenstein in New York — "I was no-one. I went to Elaine's like a tourist and meekly accepted my table by the kitchen."

Although character and setting seem the most impressive elements of fiction here, Carey knows how to contrive an absorbing plot. Both brothers hint at something awful that happened to Michael's son, and Marlene's story — a rise from high school drop out to skilled mastermind of fraud and forgery, a climb that does not exclude murder — fascinates. And then there is the surprising ending, proving in a bizarre and moving way, the book's subtitle.

Theft: A Love Story by Peter Carey. Knopf, 269 pp., $24.

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