Peter Carey has always been interested in provenance. His novels teem with people who lie about who they are and where they’re from. In his cackling new tale, Theft, Carey transposes these themes onto the world of contemporary art, where, despite the existence of art police and rabid collectors, authenticity remains a murky concept indeed.
Michael “Butcher” Boone has learned this truth the hard way. As the novel opens, the formerly famous painter has been exiled to the cultural backwater of rural Australia. His wife has left him, his collectors have dried up, and Butcher now has sole charge over his 220-pound mentally handicapped brother, Hugh “Slow Bones” Boone.
Nearing the age of retirement, Butcher has literally painted himself into a corner. Things quickly go even further south. Hugh loses a puppy and grows unstable; Marlene, a comely young authenticator/dealer shows up on Butcher’s doorstep and seduces him; and a neighbor’s painting vanishes.
While the art world convulses around this crime, Butcher nurses his own sense of theft. Hugh’s needs hamper his freedom; Butcher’s patrons buy his art at prices so low it feels like theft; and the global art markets devalue anything that comes from too far away, or doesn’t arrive attached to a big name.
Ultimately, Butcher is willing to cut a corner to get out of this rut and Marlene is around when he does. As it turns out, Butcher is more than happy to use his own work as a matador’s cape for Marlene’s schemes — so long as he can keep her and make a bit of money on the side. It feels like revenge.
Readers familiar with Carey’s work know we’ve just entered illywacking territory, where the ability to tell a tall tale, to shape-shift and reinvent oneself, is the key method for extracting revenge on the indignity of being considered a second-class citizen. Ned Kelly pulled this off in Carey’s 2000 Booker Prize winner, True History of the Kelly Gang, as did the narrator of Carey’s previous book, My Life as a Fake.
But there is more to art than just trickery — and no one has depicted this quite like Carey. Along the way, Theft provides a vivid and beautiful portrait of how art is actually made and how its vibrations are felt. Alternating between the voice of Butcher and that of his brother, Carey captures the tidal wash of an artist’s narcissism — the stewing, the ambition, the adversarial bravado, the retreating, the work, and the strange process by which all this becomes not only an object of art, but a commodity.
There are various forms of theft that happen during this process — and the one this novel illuminates best is cultural. In order to “break out,” Butcher needs to take his paintings to Sydney, and then further onward to Japan. From there they need to wind up in America, where, if he is lucky, he can sell his most magnificent masterpieces — his heart and soul, really — to someone who might simply box it up and store it. As a financial investment.
There is a kind of deracination to this westward migration, and Carey brilliantly evokes it by lingering on Butcher’s landscape in New South Wales. The section in which Butcher first encounters Marlene features some of Carey’s best writing to date. This woman who is all airness and light — and money, too — comes up against a small town’s machines and their grinding differentials, the town river’s mercurial violence. Carey’s sentences ooze and suck with rage. Butcher is going to have to be yanked out of this place, that much is clear.
Carey’s writing increasingly resembles William Faulkner’s work. Theft presents a man who is very much of his place but must leave it to become an authentic artist in the world’s eye — much as Quentin Compson had to travel north to get an education in Absalom, Absalom. Butcher’s narrative pays tribute to this journey, and his art does so in almost biblical terminology. “The floor of a painter’s studio should be like a site of sacrifice,” says Butcher at one point, “stabbed by staples, but also tended, swept, scrubbed, washed clean after every encounter.” There’s a reason, this powerful book makes clear, why so many painters feel their canvases were painted in blood.
John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.