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The artistic temperament

Theft A Love Story Peter Carey Alfred A. Knopf: 224 pp., $24

May 21, 2006|Jonathan Kirsch | Jonathan Kirsch is the author of 11 books, including the forthcoming "A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization."

THE latest novel by Peter Carey, twice the winner of Britain's prestigious Booker Prize (for "Oscar and Lucinda" and "True History of the Kelly Gang"), has produced a low-grade literary scandal. Now and then, the protagonist of "Theft" grouses about his recent divorce, and the author's real-life ex-wife is not happy about it. "I think it is a misuse of literature," Alison Summers told the Independent. "And I don't want to be portrayed as the horrendous woman of literature."

Such sniping, however, might be considered much ado about nothing. The divorce proceedings in "Theft" do not rise even to the level of subplot, and the fictional ex-wife is so minor a character that she is mentioned only in passing, and then only as "the Plaintiff."

To be sure, Carey's book is afire with passion, both love and loathing, but the target of all this emotion is a wholly invented character named Marlene Leibovitz, a femme fatale compounded out of the stuff of black comedy, film noir and a measure of middle-aged male sex fantasy. "She appeared unusual, but very attractive," confesses the protagonist, Michael Boone, "so it is strange, you might think -- given my miserable existence and almost continual horniness -- how powerfully and deeply she irritated me."

Boone is an Australian painter, also known as Butcher Bones, in ironic memory of the family business he abandoned to reinvent himself as an artist. Bones is a man in free fall, not unlike the afflicted but lovable heroes of Mordecai Richler's "Joshua Then and Now" and "St. Urbain's Horseman." His beloved child, his house and studio, and his fortune were forfeited in the divorce proceedings; a drunken effort to reclaim them only landed him in jail.

Most vexing of all -- and crucial to the story line of "Theft" -- is the downward spiral of his reputation in the art world. When we meet him, Bones has been reduced to serving as the unpaid caretaker of a remote country house owned by one of his rich collectors. But he has not bottomed out yet, and we witness the crimes he is willing to commit to regain what he has lost. "At this teetering moment," he says, "I was everything that makes an artist a hateful loathsome beast."

All the while, Michael is accompanied by his oversized but underdeveloped brother, Hugh. The most likable thing about Michael is his loyalty to his brother (who is known as Slow Bones), but he is sorely tried by the burden of caring for a man-child. "Sometimes he was so bloody smart, so coherent, at other times a wailing gibbering fool," Michael sighs. "I had Hugh the Poet and Hugh the Murderer, Hugh the Idiot Savant, and he was heavier and stronger, and once he had me down I could only control him by bending his little finger as if I meant to snap it."

Exactly here begins the subtle accumulation of clues that turns "Theft" from a love story into a thriller. Marlene embarks on a campaign to put Michael back into play in the art market, but she also involves him in a dicey attempt to locate and authenticate the missing works of her father-in-law, a long-dead artist named Jacques Leibovitz, a (fictional) contemporary and colleague of Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein. Between manipulations of the living artist and the dead one, Marlene's enterprise attracts the attention of an Australian police detective and art fancier, who sets out in hot pursuit of the star-crossed pair.

Carey's work is often described as "literary fiction," a label of uncertain meaning that may prompt some readers to fear an excess of pretty language and a paucity of plot. These fears are unfounded in "Theft." The caper at the heart of Carey's tale is utterly absorbing, and the novel itself is richly ornamented with the tradecraft both of artist and art forger. Thus, for example, we watch as Bones is reduced to using house paint fortified with sand and sawdust when he is too poor to afford a supply of proper oils, and we learn how an expert counterfeiter might use a tea kettle, a syringe and a cache of castoff art supplies to defeat the X-rays and chemical analyses employed to detect a faked masterpiece.

Carey indulges in the occasional puzzling flight of fancy, intended to show us the uncompromising artist who inhabits the corruptible body and mind of Butcher Bones. When Marlene inspires him to go to work on the masterpiece she hopes will restore him to fame and fortune, Bones decides on his palette, primarily of greens: "Green would not be my only colour, but rather my theorem, my argument, my family tree.... " He will work in cadmium yellow, too, and red madder: "[T]he names are pretty but beside the point -- there is no name for either God or light, only mathematics, the angstrom scale, red madder = 65,000 A.U."

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