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Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, May 7, 2006

THEFT

A Love Story

By Peter Carey

Knopf. 269 pp. $24

Peter Carey has a problem with telling the truth. And in one magnificent novel after another, he struggles to solve it. His criminal narrators in Jack Maggs and True History of the Kelly Gang plead their cases even as condemnation crashes down upon them. In My Life as a Fake , an act of literary fraud takes human form like Frankenstein's monster and pursues its creator to the ends of the earth.

Given his devious trajectory, a novel about modern art seems like an inevitable destination for Carey. Could there be any more irresistible house of mirrors for an author fascinated by deceit and subterfuge? Fortunes rise and fall in a haze of aesthetic jargon spun by a few collectors and dealers. So strange is this phenomenon that if we didn't have the modern art market, Peter Carey would have to invent it. Consider, for instance, that the value of a masterpiece -- like, say, a giant Campbell's Soup label or a dead goat with a tire around its belly -- depends not only on its essential "quality" but upon what curators call its "provenance," the record of ownership that establishes its authenticity back to the famous creator. When an artist leaves thousands of sketches, rough studies and finished copies among various countries, lovers and museums, provenance can be devilishly hard to establish, and that spectrum of confusion provides the perfect palette for Carey's new novel, Theft .

The story opens in 1980 in New South Wales where a deeply embittered, "previously famous artist" named Michael "Butcher" Boone is trying to get his life back in order. After a bad divorce that precipitated some jail time, Butcher is holed up with his huge, mentally handicapped brother in an empty country estate owned by his biggest collector. Butcher repays this man's hospitality by trashing the house and fraudulently charging lots of supplies to his account, but such are the liberties of genius, he tells us. Even while haphazardly caring for his brother and raging away against his ex-wife, lawyers and craven art dealers, he manages to create several enormous new paintings so dazzling that they terrify him.

One dark and stormy night during this period, a gorgeous young woman named Marlene Leibovitz emerges from the outback and asks him for help with her car. Butcher is immediately captivated, as is his brother, Hugh, and this apparently chance encounter alters their lives forever.

Marlene, it turns out, is an art dealer and the wife of Oliver Leibovitz, who is the son of Dominique, the second wife of the late Jacques Leibovitz, one of the 20th century's greatest artists. (You may want to take notes; I had to.) The authenticity of Leibovitz's valuable paintings is notoriously difficult to establish because on the night he died, Dominique and her lover, a crooked art dealer, absconded with about 50 of his works in progress, which they re-dated, doctored or "finished" in order to fetch higher prices. With the death of his mother, the droit moral , the legal right to authenticate Leibovitz's paintings, now belongs to Oliver, and Marlene has come down to New South Wales to pass judgment on a Leibovitz painting owned by one of Butcher's neighbors.

But several days after she authenticates it, it's stolen. When the police accuse Butcher of the crime, Marlene devises a nefarious plot to rehabilitate his career.

If all this sounds complicated, consider yourself warned: Carey has set down an incredibly thick premise for this tangled love story, and it takes him several chapters to explain everything. Butcher has a raw, comic voice, but the thrilling narrative drive that propelled Carey's previous work gets mired here. Even when the story does move along -- to Japan, then New York -- we experience much of it as though we're standing too close to an impressionist canvas: It's vibrant, it's colorful, but what the hell is going on? All this is intentional, of course; Carey wants to challenge the logic of our perceptions, and he's certainly clever enough to do so. "If you're a painter," Butcher says at one point, "you're already ahead of the story," but if you're not, you'll be limping along behind.

Ironically, some of the most compelling chapters are narrated by Hugh, Butcher's "doughy, six foot four, filthy, dangerous-looking" brother, who carries a metal folding chair with him everywhere and speaks to us in a great swirl of discombobulated impressions, Biblical allusions, wry asides, childlike observations and accidental insights. "It is hard work to slaughter a beast," Hugh tells us, "but when it is done it is done. If you are MAKING ART the labour never ends, no peace, no Sabbath, just eternal churning and cursing and worrying and fretting and there is nothing else to think of but the idiots who buy it or the insects destroying TWO DIMENSIONAL SPACE. . . . Everything we stand on will be washed away."

Hugh senses his brother's frustration, even if he can only describe it in this kaleidoscopic style. As Marlene lures Butcher deeper and deeper into her scheme, everything he stands on is threatened: his integrity, his art, finally even his devotion to Hugh. "I did not spare a moment to wonder about the consequences of drifting into the poisonous orbit," Butcher confesses. "I was in love." In the end, romantic attraction proves no easier to authenticate than a "rediscovered" masterpiece. Between these two fraternal perspectives, one skewed by desire, the other by a brain disorder, Carey frames a story that shifts before our eyes -- maddeningly complex, hypnotically brilliant, entirely original. ยท

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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