Theft by Peter Carey
Michael Boone, alias Butcher Bones, is a once celebrated Australian artist who’s just got out of jail for various crimes that resulted from his divorce and what he sees as the appropriation of his work as marital property. His reputation is in the toilet and he’s broke. His only benefactor, a collector named Jean-Paul, provides a rundown rural house in the far north of
The novel is narrated by Michael—and sometimes by Hugh—and those voices are almost as great an achievement for Carey as was that of Ned Kelly. Michael and Hugh are both big men, violent and crude and funny. If you start the novel disliking them, chances are the further you read, the bigger fans you’ll become. Michael is a careless guardian but staunch defender of Hugh. Hugh, whom Michael frequently calls an Idiot Savant, provides commentary, often moral commentary, on Michael’s activities as well as carrying out his own shenanigans, which include the need to carry a chair with him at all times. They come from a pretty violent working class family (father a butcher; mother hid the knives at night) and haven’t modified their attitudes or behaviors much since entering the “art world” which seems artificial and anemic in comparison.
One rainy night a sleek sophisticated New Yorker (as Michael assumes) Marlene Liebowitz turns up looking for a neighbor’s house which is virtually inaccessible across a flooded creek. Captivated, Michael manages to get her there with Jean Paul’s mowing tractor. Turns out she’s come to authenticate a genuine Liebowitz owned by the neighbor. From there the plot twists are truly gargantuan. Marlene is not a New Yorker but an Aussie girl who burned down the high school after she was expelled and married the son of the famous painter in New York where she influenced him to use his droit moral (hereditary right to authenticate his deceased father’s work) to financial advantage. The Liebowitz owned by the neighbor is stolen that very night and because Michael’s current canvas turned out to be the exact same size, he’s soon raided by the art police who confiscate his work on the assumption that he’s hidden the valuable work underneath. And that’s only Act 1.
The major theme is the value of art and how value is determined. A difficult enough question in itself but complicated immensely by the fact that the entire art world in this novel is out to maximize profits and schemes to do so are perpetrated, usually at the expense of the artist. Marlene is clearly one of the thieves, but she’s a refreshingly candid one, and Michael’s obsessed with her—until she goes too far.