The Daily Yomiuri

Carey's 'Theft' paints art world in harsh light

Theft, the latest novel by Peter Carey, is a riotous, gritty and acerbically witty account of fraud in the art world and—coming as it does in the wake of the writer's marital breakdown—the perils of falling in love.

Like most celebrated Australians, Carey doesn't live Down Under. Based in New York, he teaches creative writing at New York University and is also a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has won the Booker Prize twice already and, come October, Theft may well win him a third. It's that good.

Carey is also, of course, a teller of beautiful lies, an alchemist who has combined fact and fiction to produce glittering falsehoods since the early 1970s. His latest fib is a fast-paced tale set in the 1980s that begins in the Australian town of Bellingen (then bucolic, but since invaded by the chattering classes, partly due to the success of Carey's 1988 novel Oscar and Lucinda, which was also set there) before taking the reader to urban Sydney and on to bubble-economy Tokyo with its "pink and green neon advertising bars and go-go and Bang-kok massage." The presence of the Oedo subway line is an oversight by Carey, because it was not yet running at the time the book is set, but it does provide a contrast to the setting of the book's climax in Ed Koch's New York, crisscrossed by "piss-stink" trains.

Equal parts love story and hardboiled detective thriller, Carey's central characters, artist Michael Boone, aka Butcher Bones, and his mentally challenged, 100-kilogram, farting brother Slow Bones, take turns narrating the tale of how they were aided, or perhaps taken in, by Manolo Blahnik-shod femme fatale Marlene, whom Butcher finds bogged down on his farm in her rental car on a stormy, flooding night.

Marlene, it transpires, is searching for a painting by the famous artist Jacques Leibovitz, a work she has traced to the house of Butcher's neighbor Dozy Boylan. When the painting goes missing soon after Marlene arrives, Butcher—now befriended by the chicly shod sheila—soon finds he has been branded a suspect in the case.

Carey has been praised for inventing a new language in many of his books, but at times Butcher and Slow's narration will only sound truly convincing to readers who are unaware what an Australian really sounds like. Carey occasionally resorts to fleshing out the vernacular of his characters with the kind of idioms reserved for Australian Tourist Commission advertisements. I half expected Slow to say he'd "throw another shrimp on the barbie" or ask, "Where the bloody hell are you?" But Carey also captures the real patter of Australia, and Slow's 1980s slang made me laugh out loud on occasions—even as I rode the subway Oedo Line.

The only other two-time Booker winner, J.M. Coetzee, now lives in Adelaide, so perhaps an even more authentic sound of Australia will emerge from the pages of the transplanted South African. But that's being too harsh on Carey. He has given voice to two very difficult characters, Butcher—venal, rash and self-aggrandizing—and Slow—wandering, rude and dim, yet at times sagacious—and made them speak to the reader in a believable, entertaining and original way.

Carey has a difficult relationship with Australia, but in Theft he defends his homeland against those who argue the only culture you will find there is in its yogurt. While all the best lines are given to Slow (when he's not too busy farting) it is Butcher, as erudite as he is pugnacious, whom Carey presents as the embodiment of urbanity at the arse-end of the world. And it is through Butcher that Carey tackles the question that defines the book: How do we define worth? The writer of fabulous falsehoods seems to accept that in the art world, just as in the real world, value, no matter how arbitrarily fixed, is needed to make sense of the world and our lives. As Butcher says in the book's closing line, "How do you know how much to pay if you don't know what it's worth?"