Theft – Peter Carey

22 February 2010
Chapters 1-10
Carey the expat gets us back to the old country again, and to the middle of nowhere. The main narrator, the one who isn’t sure whether this is a tragedy he’s describing, is another Carey favourite: the working class Aussie bloke with a lot more about him than you might think. From time to time he refers to a later period, when conclusions have been drawn and things have been worked out that are only just beginning now. And alongside this there’s another perspective: his ‘220-pound’ brother (that’s about 16 stone to you and me) who has his own take on reality and his own extraordinary voice.

Ok, it’s not quite the middle of nowhere. It’s 300 miles north of Sydney in an upmarket settlement – upmarket enough for the local council to get rid of the brothers when things start to look a bit dubious. But that isn’t until Chapter 10, and I’ll get to that later. ‘Butcher Bones’ Boone, victim – if we choose to believe him – of outrageous divorce laws and subject to unstoppable binges of creative energy, is a big-canvas abstractionist in 1980. He’s down on his luck after the divorce that robbed him of all his best pieces of work and the spell in prison he landed when he tried to get some of them back. He used to be fashionable – and you should just hear him on the iniquities of artistic fashion now that nobody wants his work. Now Jean-Paul Milan, his only remaining patron, has got him to house-sit and show potential buyers around his bijou timber second home.

Once he’s found a way to stop the bloody insects getting in, he starts to acquire what he needs to get painting again, and in the middle of these early chapters we get an insider’s view of the artist at full throttle. Rothko has been mentioned, and our boy has a thing about black. We get loving details of the new acrylics on newly stretched cotton duck, mixtures of the new greens – and, in capitals, meaningful statements in stentorian tones of what seems to drive the process of creation. Whatever they might look like – and we don’t know, obviously – these canvases are imbued with meaning for Butcher himself. He thinks they’re great.

And around this spine we get details of everyday life, and the beginnings of a plot. Everyday life is mainly about the day-to-day running of the place and keeping his brother within acceptable bounds. Unless it’s Hugh speaking, the 220-pounder – he gets to narrate one in every three or four chapters – in which case we find out, as if we needed telling, what an unreliable bastard Butcher is. Hugh seems to be an autistic savant, limited to almost infantile patterns of behaviour – there’s an ugly episode to do with the puppy he finds – but he seems capable of penetrating insights into what makes his brother tick. Not that anyone wants to think about ticks in the outback.

The plot starts early on. A stunning-looking American woman arrives during a rainstorm. She’s looking for ‘Dozy’, the neighbour, but Butcher gets plenty of leering time before he manages to get her across the stream, swollen to a terrifying flood. She’s soon back – Dozy has phoned Butcher, telling him she’s trying to hit on her – and it turns out she knows all about the art market. Dozy, she tells him, has (gasp) a genuine Leibovitz… and she tells him one of those stories about how her husband, a descendant of Leibovitz, has the ‘moral right’ to decide which of his works are the real thing. It’s an issue, because said descendant is the son of the thieving Leibovitz family members involved in spiriting away – and preparing for the market – dozens of unfinished pictures before the artist’s death was reported.

It’s hard to get worked up about all this – but things become more urgent in Chapter 9: the ‘Art police’ arrive and, eventually, tell Butcher what the newspapers have been screaming about for a fortnight: Dozy’s Leibovitz has been stolen. They examine Butcher’s paintings, find a section in the middle of the best one that’s exactly the same size as the missing work, and impound it. You can imagine how pleased Butcher is, especially when they ignore his attempt to pin the theft on the American woman. He packs up, drives to Sydney and ploughs on to his patron’s manicured lawn. (His hatred for Jean-Paul is a running gag.)

Carey likes to muck about with the narrative, like those occasional references to a future time. We’ve been told, for instance, that at least one of the products of Butcher’s burst of creativity will one day be hanging in an important museum. His constantly downbeat tone suggests he won’t have got any money for it – perhaps he never gets the impounded work back – but at least we know he’s not bullshitting when he talks, endlessly, about his own talent. (Unless he’s lying, which he might be, or bigging up in some way the place where his work is shown.)

The other thing is the two-person narration. Carey’s done first-person before – The True History of the Kelly Gang is my favourite by him – and we think he’s doing it again. And then along comes Hugh, childish and super-literate at the same time. I’m not sure about plausibility – it’s not the point, somehow – but it works for me. And what we get from Hugh is background material that his manic brother is too egocentric to bother with. While the tortured artist is comparing his own situation to that of Van Gogh in the weeks before his death, Hugh is telling us about the family they grew up in and what it’s like to be the one nobody dares to trust with knives. And his version of the incident with the puppy is one of my favourites: he takes its dried-out carcase to the bar, as you would, and is enraged at the lack of sympathy he gets. Somehow, Carey manages to make his righteous anger not only plausible but also entirely understandable. Why wouldn’t you break the little finger of the man trying to take your puppy away?

23 February
Chapters 11-22
The breaking of little fingers – or the threat of it – is starting to be a habit. I forgot to mention before that it’s the way Butcher controls his lumbering brother – so, for Hugh, it’s learnt behaviour. And, like Lenny in Of Mice and Men, he he’s done it once too often: Butcher’s wife threw them both out because Hugh almost broke their young son’s finger right off in a kind of panic. He’d been the gentle giant of an uncle, but suddenly he wasn’t gentle any more.

These chapters make up more or less the second quarter of the novel, and stuff happens. And Carey seems to have decided that Hugh’s voice is as interesting as Butcher’s – more so, I’d say – so now they get alternate chapters. One of them is Butcher Bones, and the other is Slow Bones – but we get a confirmation of what we already knew: Hugh has insights into Butcher that his nominally more capable brother has no idea of. Hugh can see the artist’s monstrous egocentricity, can see the way he conveniently forgets how much other people – including Hugh himself – have contributed to the preparation and the mindless grind of chores like removing dust motes and insects from the drying paint. And Hugh can see his brother’s desires and compulsions – including the way he drools over the American woman – better than Butcher himself.

The American woman, Marlene. Butcher is carried along by her easy New York confidence, by the way she can achieve things, like all Americans, as if by divine right. Slow Bones Hugh – if we’re to believe him – can see right through her. She’s no more American than the brothers are, she’s Marleen from – from I can’t remember where, but Hugh seems to know before his brother. And her beginnings were no more auspicious than those of the sons of the bullying butcher who made their childhoods a constant battle of wills. (It would account for her having read Hugh’s favourite book, The Magic Pudding, twice. It’s a classic Australian children’s book, and it’s what gets her on his side he first time they meet in Chapter 1 or 2.)

By half-way through the novel, Marlene Leibovitz is fighting for Butcher, aiming to get him a show in Tokyo and staying the night with him in the smelly, airless building Jean-Paul’s lent them. J-P’s another fake, come to think of it, with a classier name to distance himself from the unglamorous trade his family made their money from. (I can’t remember who tells us this, but I bet it’s Hugh.) What is the thing in this book with names? New identities, nicknames that turn into labels…. I don’t know, but they always hide something. Butcher – real name Michael – likes to call his brother Slow Bones: it packages him neatly as the constant burden who puts the brake on his progress. And I’m assuming that Butcher should be as suspicious of Marlene as he is of the hated Jean-Paul: maybe she has her reasons for staying with him.

I mentioned stuff happening. After the arrival on J-P’s lawn, several things: Butcher’s ex, ‘the Plaintiff’ – another dismissive name – pokes her head out of J-P’s bedroom window. The brothers lay out the best remaining canvas on the lawn. J-P looks at it, and is hooked in the way that Butcher loves to be sarcastic about. After some haggling, he offers $10,000 cash and an empty building for Butcher to live and work in. Enter Marlene. She takes the brothers to her apartment – there has been a fairly recent break-in, which is more fully reported by Hugh than his unobservant brother – and she is dismissive of her own husband. We never meet him, so we only have her word for it that he is physically revolted by any Liebovitzes he comes into contact with. At one point she goes into almost tedious detail about the man who has really stolen Dozy’s Leibovitz. It sounds pretty convincing, but then it would, wouldn’t it?

And… she becomes a part of their lives. She gets Butcher’s impounded painting back, not quite ruined in the police warehouse, and offers enough help to get her on to Butcher’s side. Any suspicion he might have had slowly disappears, at roughly the same time as his desire to get her to bed becomes more urgent. Hugh, of course, does not see these two processes as in any way unconnected. He reports dryly on the way his brother gets him out of the way, knows how his brother likes to talk of him – ‘There is always Hugh’ – as the millstone around his neck. Hugh is attracted by Marlene as much as his brother is, but what’s a great big lump to do? One thing he does: in that tortuous, obsessive-compulsive way he has – and that he’s completely aware of – he finds his way to her flat. She often returns there, after a particular look comes into her eyes that Hugh notices and Butcher doesn’t.

She’s there when he arrives, and tells him she’d like both him and his brother to live there. She throws something out of the window, and it crashes through the trees to the ground below. Hugh notices these things: the first time she took them to the flat it was a peach, half-eaten by, presumably, whoever else was living there. She says nobody else lives there now, and we don’t believe her.

26 February
Chapters 23-40
I suppose it’s been a crime caper all along. I never notice when an art-house novel – which this definitely is – takes on the manner of a popular genre. But then, we’re not supposed to: why else would Carey have two narrators who don’t know what kind of novel they’re in for nearly half the book? Ok, I should have guessed when the Art Police arrived in Chapter 9 – you’re not going to bring in the cops unless somebody is going to use them – but…. At least I recognised Marlene as a fake reasonably early, and this section lets us know just how big a fake she is. And I did get at least one of the clues: when a particular pigment in a Leibovitz was suspected of being too rare to have been used in 1913, up pops a convenient receipt. Oh yeh, you think – and you’re right: Marlene has a thing going with a Japanese printer. He’ll sort out all the provenance you need, right down to perfect catalogues of exhibitions that might have taken place, but not necessarily with those particular pictures in them.

And yes, she is taking Butcher for a ride. Unfortunately, the more dishonest she proves to be – she tells him, in dribs and drabs, right down to how she was the one who did the break-in at Dozy’s place – the more he ‘loves’ her. His word. By the time they’ve got all the way to New York (via Japan), she’s dropped unmistakable hints that yes, the reason for Butcher’s exhibition, for all the gallivanting, is to dispose of the Leibovitz. And, now I come to think of it, the only proof Butcher has that the Japanese department store really is a recognised art venue are publicity materials she’s shown him. And didn’t he see copies at the printer’s place? And, again, he only has her word for it that all his paintings have been sold: she says that’s what the symbol next to each one means. Hmm. I have to assume that if even I’ve noticed them, the clues must be pretty blatant. We’re supposed to suss out Marlene while the lovelorn Butcher is helplessly trapped in her – in her what? – in her knickers, obviously.

Meanwhile. Hugh continues to be more interesting than Butcher – although when Carey has to begin following Butcher and Marlene on their travels he has less time to spend with Hugh, stuck in a utility room in one of J-P’s care homes. He’s got a fine line in nearly, but not quite, apposite biblical references – he’s Samson betrayed, or Christ before the stone’s rolled back – and he continues to spout stuff that, well, we don’t have to find plausible as long as it’s entertaining. Which it is. And the ethereal being who rolls back the metaphorical stone for him is an angel – bizarrely, one previously seen by Butcher at Marlene’s flat after he and Hugh move in as soon as she thinks of the idea. He dresses in perfumed, unearthly white and he’s – Olivier, Marlene’s husband. When Butcher sees him, he’s haunting the scene of his own cuckolding. When he fetches Hugh he’s carrying out a favour for his adulterous wife….

Marlene is the power behind the plotting of this book, and she uses her attractions to get whatever she wants. In other words, as Olivier finally seems to be coming to realise on the plane to America (with Hugh, because Marlene needs him there to keep Butcher from fretting) she’s a manipulative cow. She needs him to authenticate the dodgy Leibovitz she’s got her hands on, and he tells Hugh she can forget it, oh yes, he’s had enough of her… etc. We haven’t actually witnessed the conversation where he tells her this, however.

Of course, it isn’t only a crime caper. Carey follows the rule of writing about what you know, and what he knows about are Australia in the 80s and New York more or less ever since. He has Hugh in the middle of nowhere at the care home, but he becomes, in capitals, a local character and the Aussie police are nice to him. I.e., as Hugh doesn’t realise, they take the piss. (I remember in His Illegal Self, the last of Carey’s novels that I read in spite of it being written after this one, the sophisticated ex-pat is always rude about the Aussie cops. At best they’re comic relief like those small-town inspectors in Agatha Christie novels; at worst they’re unspeakable.) Butcher is unfeasibly astute and witty about the miseries of air travel, the concreting of Tokyo and the incontrovertibly lunatic behaviour of New Yorkers in general and taxi drivers in particular. He throws eggs at them, as you would.

But what he really knows about is being an Australian ex-pat. Butcher’s observations are, surely, Carey’s own, like the riff about how nobody outside of Australia can possibly know what it’s like to start to make a name outside of that neck of the woods. It’s not like coming from Hicksville, Tennessee (or whatever equivalent armpit nowheresville he comes up with): it’s like trying to get off the moon. And I bet Carey really did want to throw eggs at taxi drivers. But he’s been an ex-pat for a long time now, and the style of this novel is coming more and more to remind me of Americans who were born there, like Carl Hiassen and T C Boyle. You can take the boy out of Australia – and, well, it’s quite difficult to slot him back in. Except… the way he mines his heritage is starting to remind me of those westernised ex-pats from the Indian subcontinent. Like them, he takes us to a place we might think we know – but he still knows an awful lot more, and out of it he can make something as new and strange as he likes. Which he does, because this is what he’s got for us. If I was being cynical I’d call it his USP.

1 March
Chapter 41-end
At first I thought Carey was tired of the crime caper plot: he seems to concentrate on the far more interesting subjects of Australians abroad and the iniquities and stupidities of the art market. Those are mainly in Butcher’s chapters, and I’ll get back to them in a bit. Meanwhile Hugh’s chapters give Carey the chance to poke some gentle fun at New York’s inequalities. Hugh arrived at Olivier’s club, a ‘mansion’ on Gramercy Park in Chapter 40, and it’s bliss. But he spends his days out of Olivier’s way with the down and outs who thought – or still think, this being New York – that they could amount to something. Olivier’s got him a new chair – inexplicably, I’ve forgotten to mention that a portable chair is an essential item for Hugh on any of his city explorations and in one late chapter he looks back on how many great laundries Olivier found for him to sit outside. Somehow Carey makes it so that you know what he means.

There’s another strong thread running through both narratives, with Hugh’s creating a kind of oblique commentary on anything Butcher might tell us: their shared family heritage. Again, this has been going on throughout the novel and I’ve somehow glossed over it. From the start, the only meaning Bacchus Marsh has for Butcher is as the place he got away from. It couldn’t be more different for Hugh, who tells us all we need to know about why his brother not only looks like a bullet-headed butcher, but about the gene-pool that gave him his temper, his stubbornness, his Australian-strength appetite for booze. This is from their father. From their mother they got something else, a dark religious fervour that gives Hugh his fount of stories, and that pushes Butcher to artistic extremes. So his recent paintings are suffused by memories of her pessimistic needlepoint texts that give them not only their titles but also, in some existential way that Butcher does his best to explain, their fundamental meaning. Phew. Heavy stuff for a crime caper – you can see why Carey tends to push the plot to one side sometimes.

I really will get back to the plot, not least because several of its main threads give Carey the chance to develop a few riffs about art and artists in general and the ever more feverish art market in particular. We’ve got Butcher as almost the stereotypical artist, and as one of the plot threads develops – his decision to create a forgery of a legendary lost Leibovitz – we get another chance to see him in full creative flight. For an inarticulate backwater Aussie he does a pretty good job of explaining the process of how he has to somehow become the dead artist – but then, these narrative voices have always been a particular Carey speciality: the uneducated first-person narrator given, somehow, the insights and language of an educated author. As he creates what he tells us is a masterpiece (he might not use that exact word) we believe him – and we believe his contempt for an art world that ascribes value to works that are often third-rate, just because the process of attribution has been duly carried out.

Attribution. It’s an explosively loaded word in this novel, and Butcher becomes more and more exasperated by how it works. And Olivier has the moral right to judge works, the droit morale we learned about in the early chapters, set in stone (if we are to believe both Marlene and Carey) in France, where it matters. Carey has crafted it so that the reader is as disgusted as Butcher is. Of course, in his case it’s complicated by the whims of the handful of New York connoisseurs who decide what is fashionable, and therefore lucrative…. And the clever thing that Carey does at the end is to bring all these things together. Ok, the plot creaks a bit, relying as it does on Marlene turning out to be not only manipulative but psychopathic – and on some rather too evident research into artists’ materials in the mid-20th Century… but hey.

The plot is that in order to get the droit morale Marlene has to kill Olivier. Problem solved, as she, more or less, puts it to Butcher. But this happens late on, after Butcher has worked out a different plan. For him – and for the reader by this time – the stupidity of the art market makes it a deserving case for a bit of criminal activity. He forges the Leibovitz, unbeknownst (he thinks) to Marlene. But she realises they need another painting on top, so that the Leibovitz can be ‘discovered’ by a conservator known by a friend in the art world. The discovery has to be genuine, and this is where the art materials research comes in. Fine.

What’s interesting is the other thing that’s going on. I’m sure I’m not the only one who read the novel’s subtitle – ‘A Love Story’ – as ironic. But it isn’t. All the crime caper plot tropes are in place, and yes, Marlene always was using Butcher for her own ends. But but but… after Butcher’s discovered what a nutter she is and has left her, things happen to suggest that she is as in love with him as he used to be with her. He’s been back in Australia for five years, working in a lawn-mowing business with Hugh, when he realises fully what’s been going on. As you might expect, Marlene has used everything she knows about the art market to get the forged Leibovitz sold for a record price. No surprise there…

…but she also gets Butcher the fame he always craved, getting his paintings shown all over the world. So the mention he made all those chapters back about where his work is displayed turns out to be not the fantasy of a loser but the stunned realisation of someone who’s just gatecrashed his own party. And she can only have two possible motives that he can see: if we believe him – and I’m not sure we should – she always recognised his talent; and if we believe him, again, she always said she loved him. So she’s done it for reasons relating to the two things he loved about her. But what good is that for Butcher now? It’s his tragedy that a man as principled as he is – and we’ve slowly discovered that that’s exactly what he is – isn’t going to turn a blind eye to murder. And in the Carey universe, perhaps that’s his tragic flaw.


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