“For five summers we had a NORMAL LIFE,” Hugh Bones says in Peter Carey’s new novel Theft: A Love Story. He says this after a tranquil period of operating a lawn service with his brother, Michael “Butcher” Bones, a failed superstar painter. While mowing lawns, the brothers Bones step beyond Butcher’s relentless agonizing over his own rising and falling stock in the international market. Butcher grows fat, old, and violently sunburned. In this period outside of Butcher’s pursuit of his art career, he and his brother manage to live life.
Carey is an Australian writer who has spent significant time outside of Australia. He has lived in New York since 1989. Even so, he continues to write about Australian themes such as the historical Robin Hood figure of Ned Kelly in the True History of the Kelly Gang. He has won two Booker prizes, a Commonwealth Prize, and Theft recently won Carey a second Vance Palmer Prize. In Carey’s nine previous novels he has written about problems of identity, exploring postmodern themes such as the illusory nature of reality and ambivalence toward art. This is not to say Carey is nihilistic—in the manner of writers such as Donald Barthleme or Gabriel García Márquez, he is able to rescue individual identity from the irony of the contemporary world, where liberation is a synonym for destruction.
In a similar paradoxical vein, the basic premise of the Theft is that robbery increases value. Butcher, an ambitious painter, falls in love with Marlene, a professional art appraiser and art validator. In hands less caustic than Carey’s this might seem like the set up for a baldly ironic love story: washed-up artist falls in love with an art appraiser. Furthermore, this is also the story of Butcher’s relationship with his developmentally disabled brother, Hugh. Together, Hugh and Butcher alternate narrative duties. Each chapter augments the other, often overlapping events told from the different brother’s view. Where Butcher’s story must be decoded to read past his bombastic language and his alternating bouts of self-loathing and self-love, Hugh’s voice is often painfully literal and focuses on unexpected details. It is like looking at the photo album of a six-year-old.
Butcher, just released from prison, attempts to rebuild his career. He finds, though, that his moment has past. Australian painting has continued to develop without him. The worst fate that can happen to a painter has happened to him: he is out of fashion. In Carey’s novel, populated as it is by the gigantic presence of Butcher and his ambition and his romance with Marlene, it would seem everything would collapse for him. But throughout it all he continues to care for his brother Hugh, drink, and amazingly, make art.
Carey reverses the conventional wisdom that artists live supercharged lives more deeply felt than the rest of us. In the end, the value of a painting is what it sells for at Sotheby’s. The book pokes holes in the conceit that art somehow reveals to us something ineffably human. And yet Theft manages to give us just this.
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Reviewed by Matt Briggs