The messy businesses of art fraud and love
Two brothers spin a tale of art, intrigue, and uneasy love in Booker Prize-winner Peter Carey's latest novel.
Breaking the law seems to agree with Peter Carey. He won a Man Booker Prize for "True History of the Kelly Gang," starring Australia's version of Robin Hood. He swiped "Great Expectations" from Pip, making the criminal "Jack Maggs" its dark new heart. "My Life as a Fake" brilliantly turned literary fraud into a tale of horror; now Carey uses art fraud to tell an uneasy love story in his new Theft. (Next up: mail fraud.)
"Theft" is the story of two brothers. Michael "Butcher" Bones, is a "previously famous artist" who's just served a stint in prison for trying to steal his own work. (It was granted to his ex-wife, "The Plaintiff," in their divorce.) He's the guardian of his mentally troubled brother, Hugh, "doughy, six foot four, filthy, dangerous-looking," who speaks in a kind of biblically poetic style that wouldn't sound out of place in Faulkner and carries a metal folding chair everywhere he goes.
Actually, "troubled" applies equally to either Bones boy: Butcher indulges in all the clichés of the artistic life - selfishness, alcoholism, rages - with foul-mouthed gusto. Of course, despite Hugh's well-placed contempt for Butcher's egotism, there are reasons behind the rage. The most compelling is his separation from his only son because of an incident that makes for the book's most chilling revelation. But by the end of the tale, readers look forward to Hugh's chapters: There's less swearing and fewer contortions of self-justification.
The Bones boys were raised by a giant, angry man - the last in a line of butchers - and the terrified woman who married him. Their mother drank from a mug that read, "In the morning, consider that you may not live until evening," and embroidered samplers with such cheerful mottoes as, "The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small."
While Butcher and Hugh have very different takes on current events, they are united in one opinion: "Poor old mum, God bless her."
After setting up two impressively unreliable narrators, Carey then unfolds a tale of lost paintings, scheming, and duplicity.
As the novel opens, the brothers have camped out in rural Australia at a house owned by Butcher's patron, where Butcher is proceeding to trash the place in the name of art. One rainy day, a lovely blonde gets her car stuck, and Butcher has to help her across the flooded river. Her name is Marlene, and she's risked her Manolos in all that mud to verify a painting by modern artist Jacques Liebovitz.
Here we pause for a lesson in art history. The provenance of Liebovitz's paintings is particularly tortured, even in the realm of modern art, because on the night of his death, his second wife and her lover absconded with 50 works in progress, which they subsequently touched up to look like finished paintings.
Then the lover double-crossed the wife and went public with the scheme, causing panic attacks among art investors and museum curators who had shelled out millions for works that might only be worth thousands. Marlene is married to Liebovitz's son, who inherited the droit moral, the legal right to decide if a painting is genuine.
Still with me? Because Carey's just gotten started. A few days after Marlene verifies the painting, it's stolen, and Butcher is the main suspect.
Butcher is also broke. He's been using Hugh's disability check to buy house paint, since he can't afford oils. His paintings have gone out of style, to the horror of his patron, whose collection is falling in value, and to the angry amusement of Butcher.
"Oh dearie me. Gracious, what a disaster. What might I do? They did not know that I was born out of style, and was still out of style when I came down on the train from Bacchus Marsh. My trousers were too short, my socks were white and I will commit similar sins of style when I am in my coffin."
Apparently out of the goodness of her heart, Marlene offers to help Butcher by arranging a show in Tokyo. From there, they head to New York, faithful Hugh following behind, and concoct a scheme to resurrect Liebovitz's lost masterpiece. The caper, despite all the continent-hopping, seems oddly slow-moving. Readers in search of a nimble thriller would do better elsewhere.
This despite the presence of a relentless art detective named Amberstreet, who racks up frequent-flier miles trailing Marlene and Butcher around the globe. (Amberstreet, like Hugh and Marlene, has the ability to recognize genius when a seven-foot canvas of it is staring him in the face, putting him light-years ahead of Jean-Paul in Butcher's estimation.)
Butcher, however, is entirely dismissive of the detective's profession: "The Art Police are cops, that's all, and they will come and call on you as unexpectedly as Jehovah's Witnesses and for reasons just as stupid."
The strength of "Theft" lies in its narrative voice and in Carey's delight in his subject. The two-time Booker winner is clearly enjoying himself - especially during Hugh's chapters, and when Butcher is holding forth on the creation of art and the business of art, which as far, as he is concerned, are mutually exclusive.
Good art, Marlene's teacher Milt tells her, can't explain itself. "Real artists don't have strategy.... Cézanne could not explain himself, nor could Picasso. Kandinsky could explain everything Q.E.D."
Milt quotes Emily Dickinson: "When I feel like the top of my head would come off, that's poetry - is there another way?"
Butcher is scornful of investors, who, he says, have no eye for art, just a nose for business. "The problem with art is the people who buy it," Butcher says, quoting American art critic Clement Greenberg. "The market is an easily panicked beast. And so it should be. After all, how can you know how much to pay when you have no [expletive deleted] idea of what it's worth?"
• Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.