Home » Australia » Peter Carey » Theft

Peter Carey: Theft

Forty-six years before this book was published, Patrick White published The Vivisector, the story of an artist and a visionary. Carey must have read the book but his painter, Michael Boone, aka Butcher Bones (his father was a butcher), is a very different character from White’s Hurtle Duffield. Like many artists, real and fictional, he believes that the rules don’t apply to him, which leads him into the trouble we learn about at the beginning of the book – divorce, bankruptcy and prison. We start with him as he is released from prison (for stealing his paintings from his ex-wife, who had been awarded them by the divorce court.) He is given a house by his patron (Jean-Paul Milan), who has made his money from exploitative nursing homes. Milan makes the mistake of leaving Butcher in the house. Not only does he paint pictures, he also makes a lot of mess in the house. He also uses Jean-Paul’s account at the local store to buy all sorts of things, including expensive paint and canvas. He alienates the locals, breaks the law at will and generally behaves irresponsibly.

As well as painting – in order to make some money, as he is completely broke – he does have one good side. He looks after Hugh, his simple-minded brother. Indeed, what makes this novel interesting is that the story is narrated mainly by Butcher but also by Hugh (aka Blue Bones, as he has red hair). Hugh is somewhat sceptical of his brother but Butcher is devoted to him, even allowing him to bring along his metal chair on which he sits wherever they go, indoors or outdoors. Butcher’s great hero had been a painter called Leibovitz and so he is impressed when he receives a visit (by mistake) from Marlene, who is apparently Leibovitz’s daughter-in-law. She tells him that his neighbour has an original Leibovitz (though has managed to keep it quiet). Matters are made worse when Butcher finds out (as a result of a visit by the police) that the painting has been stolen and he is a suspect, particularly as the painting he is currently working on is exactly the same size. When he is driven out of the house by the locals, with the police also tracking him, he sets off with Hugh and the paintings he has left and goes North, ending up on his ex-wife’s front lawn (there is a restraining order on him).

But Marlene is going to take over his life and it is she who helps gets his paintings exhibited in Tokyo and then sold to a rich Japanese collector but who also gets him involved in various shady dealings involving both his own paintings and those of her late father-in-law. At this point, Carey proceeds to dissect the very shady art world with trickery, forgery and theft being the norm rather than the exception. It is only when murder is involved that our hero starts to realise that he is in too deep. But as a story of a colourful artist and of shady dealings in the art world, with links between New York and Australia, and with the perspective not just of the key players but of the naïve Hugh, Carey tells a first-class fascinating story which, while not as good as The Vivisector, is still a first-class novel.

Publishing history

First published 2006 by Random House