A wild world of high crimes and masterpieces

Review Novel

May 28, 2006|By JOAN MELLEN | JOAN MELLEN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Theft: A Love Story

Peter Carey

Alfred A. Knopf / 269 pages / $24

Brilliant Peter Carey, two-time Man Booker Prize winner (for True History of the Kelly Gang and Oscar and Lucinda), has written another marvelous novel. Theft: A Love Story is a hilarious romp through the corrupt world of art dealers ("the most larcenous people on earth") and art authenticators.

This plotless picaresque navigates the duplicities of collectors, critics, lawyers and hangers-on. Facilitating the thievery, the endless reduction of art to commerce, are the extended family members of great artists like Jacques Leibovitz. They wield the "droit moral," the power to authenticate a painting.

Before this mad caper of a story draws to a close, indefatigable "Butcher" (Michael Boone), the Australian painter at the heart of the story, has become a forger himself, forging work by Leibovitz, whose work he has revered, even as Leibovitz is revealed to have forged Rembrandts.

Butcher is joined by his obstreperous charge, his idiot-savant brother Hugh, who, with his searing, down-to-earth observations, all but steals the book. The book alternates sections from each man's point of view. Hugh, a lumbering man who penetrates all pretense, is, of course, far more humane than the artist for whom nothing truly matters but his art. Butcher can watch a puppy drown, worrying only about how he will control Hugh's grief. Butcher is the stereotypic artist for whom his art comes first. Yet Carey demands that we root for Butcher, not least when he exults that his paintings "could still bite your leg off and spit the crunchy pieces on the floor."

Butcher also retains the reader's sympathy because he loves his uncontrollable brother, even as Hugh, the "dogsbody" condemned to furthering Butcher's art, cannot help but admire the artist whose "labour never ends, no peace, no Sabbath, just eternal churning and cursing and worrying and fretting." Hugh mourns when his brother is reduced to forgery, "painting like a MEDIOCRITY." Hugh may be challenged, but he knows the difference. He is also a poet: "Who could not fall asleep with the scent of lavender rising from a woman's skin?" he remarks.

Butcher and Hugh are joined in their madcap adventures by Marlene, estranged daughter-in-law of Leibovitz's son Olivier. Seemingly a fragile, tender blonde, Marlene turns out to be gifted at manipulating the "droit moral," as Carey exposes how an uneducated hanger-on can seize control of "what was art and what was not," only to emerge "in charge of history."

What is theft, Carey ponders, when Butcher has been "gaoled for attempting to retrieve my own best work which had been declared Marital Assets?" Artists are, after all, thieves by definition, stealing from life.

Carey's virtuoso language dramatizes that Butcher is the real thing. Joyously, he discovers the right paints, even in backwater Australia. Besotted by color, he describes greens as "dark satanic black holes that could suck your heart out of your chest." Artists are enchanted by paint: "Just a teardrop of this stuff could colonise a blob of white." Carey is not afraid to enlist the word "happiness," even as he allows that contentment inspires nothing so much as terror. If the artist knows no rules (Butcher's ancestor is novelist Joyce Cary's Gulley Jimson), that is as it should be: The enemies of art are the art police and the real police - here Amberstreet, a detective who pursues Marlene and Butcher yet who, mysteriously, possesses an unlikely appreciation for art.

The wheel of fortune spins wildly. Other points of view ascend, even that of Olivier Leibovitz, who concludes that "all of life was a wry and complicated joke." Autobiography slyly surfaces: "If you are American you will never understand what it is to be an artist on the edge of the world," Carey explains. "In Australia everything is the opposite of what it seems to mean." When the setting is not backwater Australia, where creeks rage and mud overwhelms, it is Tokyo, New York ("the heart of the imperium") or Germany.

Near the end, Butcher is rescued from what seemed to be perpetual obscurity, from what Hugh terms the "SCRAP HEAP OF HISTORY," by the Germans. It's a tad too late. In Hugh's precise description, Butcher, who has survived by operating a lawn-cutting business, has become "a great fat lumpy man one short arm in his pocket, the other hand rubbing at his speckled freckled sun-baked head."

Artist or idiot savant - for everyone, life, like art, means navigating the absurd. Theft: A Love Story, is witty, urbane, funny and profound, down to its last searing line: "How do you know how much to pay if you don't know what it's worth?"

Joan Mellen teaches in the graduate program in creative writing at Temple University in Philadelphia.

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