Telegraph, May 28, 2006
Imagine a cheerful Faulkner, or an even earthier Nabokov. Not possible? Peter Carey is the embodiment of what seems such a literary impossibility, and a writer like no one else in the merry infectiousness, the persuasive relentlessness of his literary energy. In Theft: A Love Story here it is again, ‘the human voice once more in uproar’, lyrical and foul, biblical and crude, in the now trademark Carey fusion of expertise and wonderful blaggery.
A critique of both the art business and the business of love, this is a funny, gorgeous steal of a book. It is 1980; after being jailed for trying to thieve back his early paintings from his ex-wife, Butcher Bones, a once locally-famous painter now out of fashion, is caretaking (and painting like crazy) in hicksville, northern New South Wales, on a property owned by a patronising ex-patron.
With him is his brother Hugh, whose ‘needs are special’. He is Butcher’s burden. ‘There is always Hugh and what to do with him’. Then Marlene arrives, an art expert in the middle of nowhere, trailing mud and Manolo Blahniks. She truly seems to love art, to have the ‘Eye’. Astonishingly she has even read Hugh’s favourite book and bonds with him over it.
Is she American? Is she ‘working for the other team, the market, the rich guys, the ones who decided what was art and what was not’? She kicks off not just her shoes but a load of old plot nonsense about counterfeit paintings and a jaunt across the art world via a horde of shady businessmen and criminal investigators. Bones, of course, falls in love. But is she the real thing? In other words, who will be the breaking of Bones: Marlene, the crooked, lovely authenticator or ‘Hugh the Poet and Hugh the Murderer, Hugh the Idiot Savant’, the ‘fearsome mouth-breather’ who’s been responsible for a few fractures already, albeit little ones?
Where Butcher is tough and apologetic, Hugh is both poetic and skewed. ‘Pthaa! We are Bones, God help us, raised in sawdust, dry each morning… the pair of us are meat men, not river men, not beggars hiding in damp shacks with floods and mud and mould.’ Not that Butcher is any less gloriously declarative. ‘I am Butcher Bones, a thieving cunning man… 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.’
Carey loves to goad acceptable style, knock it off its perch. As a writer he is in love not just with the place where ‘fakery’ meets ‘reality’ but with the Molotov mix of so-called high and low art; here he courts everything from Rembrandt to Pollock, obsessed with what doesn’t get to be ‘art’ and why. In particular Theft’s headlong helterskeltering owes a lot to that favourite book of Hugh’s, Norman Lindsay’s riotous Australian children’s book, The Magic Pudding (1918), all farce, thievery and swaggering joy, a work of shapeshifting brilliance in both voice and illustration. But – is it art?
Outsider and insider status is always the real subject of Theft, even beyond its fascinations with the way art lasts and the sheer lovely speed of being alive ‘on the aft of PROMISE like the burning edge of a leaf in a firestorm.’ In the end it tells an old story, the one where money can’t buy you love, where guile itself is an art, and where art is the ‘limitation of the materials’ plus ‘the true wonder of bloody everything, no less’.
In other words, it is a magic, near-impossible combination – and one that Carey, in another incredible meld of mess and discipline, bombast and quietness, has pulled off and run away with one more time.