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Sunday, 16 April 2006

Review: Theft: A Love Story, Peter Carey (2006)

Bellingen is a small, quiet town located between Armidale and Coffs Harbour on the New South Wales north coast. The bush is lush and tropical up there and the area is known for its high rainfall. Situated on the Waterfall Highway and the Bellinger River, the town is a few kilometres from the coast. I drove up past the turn-off along the Pacific Highway in December. In fact, I bought petrol in Macksville, about 40 kilometres to the south. The place is surrounded on all sides by national parks.

The novel opens in a rainstorm. A dog drowns. A strange woman comes to visit Butcher Bones in his hideaway, his refuge from an acrimonious divorce. She’s attractive and bedraggled, leaving her rental car at his studio so she can inspect a Jacques Leibovitz painting at Dozy Boylan’s place across the raging creek. Butcher is curious, she knows all about Leibovitz, and he never expected to hear all this stuff here, in the middle of nowhere on the NSW north coast. He’s intrigued and attracted. He takes her to Boylan’s house. Boylan telephones him during the visit. He insults Boylan. But Bellingen is a temporary lodging and Butcher and Hugh, his mentally-challenged brother, are soon driving off in the ute to Sydney. Butcher wants money. The rest of the book is about how he gets it and what, in the end, he is prepared to do to this end.

So I did not call him. I would do it later. I would get over it. He would get over it, or so I thought. I was wrong, wrong about almost everything, and I would wander on blindly for the next few weeks before I finally discovered the real source of Dozy’s upset, and in the meantime there developed one of those strange silences between friends that, like a torn shoulder muscle left unattended, grows hard and lumpy and finally locks into a compacted knot of injury that no amount of manipulation can undo.
  He spoke to Hugh, I know, and sometimes gave him lifts in his Land Rover, but although I saw Dozy many times upon the road and although he quietly returned my slasher after dark one night, I never actually spoke to him again. I would see that Leibovitz within the year, but by then Dozy would be dead.

Such sudden endings are commonplace in this book. In fact, in the whirl of action, amid the tensions of the main characters, the final separation of Butcher and Marlene is accomplished in similar fashion, almost improbably. But it happens. Carey has no time for drawn-out conclusions, liking his short and sweet. No time to muck around with rationalisations and arguments. His characters speak and act with aplomb, if not always to best advantage for themselves. This almost spastic jerking to and fro is trademark Carey. It’s visible in all his books. He plans his moves and executes them. Period.

There can be something thin and watery about the narrative, however, as the brothers proceed to Sydney’s central business district to take up residence in an abandoned dance studio. Carey is trucking in his old tricks; the pace is vicious and un-centred, with shifts happening all over the place and the main characters just coping with it all. Hugh’s contributions are a godsend, however, giving us a wry take on the action as Butcher attempts — to do what? He sells a new painting to Jean-Paul Milan, his sponsor, whose studio they had been inhabiting until evicted by the local council.

Always about, all my life, whether on the chair in front of our shop or in the pony cart taking orders. In Bellingen always on the road, the air in summer thick with floating thistle seeds and spiders travelling miles like balloonists on their webs, and in the city too, I would rather be outside during the hours when it was safe to be so, and I took a folding chair down to the footpath and witnessed all the human clocks passing me, pumping, sloshing—there is one, there another, and each one the centre of the world. You can go half mad looking at them, like gazing at the stars at night and thinking of infinity. What a strain it is. Our mother suffered it, always looking at eternity with her watery eyes, poor Mum, God bless her.

Butcher’s current bedlam of a life contrasts strongly with the life he led as a father and husband, when his works were still in demand. And Carey can write about calm and contentment with as much conviction as he can write about disappointment and rage. Between Butcher’s bouts of insanity there’s the under-burdened monologues of his brother Hugh — mentally retarded but not enough to dim the quakings of his earthly life. Life is full and provides its own scenery, in Carey’s novel. While Hugh is wistful about life in Bacchus Marsh, Butcher is sentimental about life before his wife became the Plaintiff.

Even at four years of age, my son was very serious about his duties in the studio and you could give him a pair of tweezers and set him to picking up dust and hairs and finally he would leave the paint as slick and unperturbed as melting ice. Children raised on Space Invaders and Battlezone will tire quickly of this stuff—no enemy to destroy, no gold coins to collect—but my Bill was a Bones deep to his bloody marrow and he worked beside his dad and uncle, solemn, freckle-faced, with his lower lip stuck out, his tongue half up his nose, and there were many days in East Ryde when we had been all three silently engaged in the sweet monotony of such housekeeping, hours punctuated by not much more than the song of blackbirds in the garden or a loud friarbird with its wattles hanging like sexual embarrassments on its ugly urgent face. Of course my apprentice was also a boy with his own employment, climbing the jacaranda, falling, howling, hooked by a branch stuck through his britches, suspended twenty feet up in the air, but Bill loved Hugh, and me, and the three of us could labour side by side sustained by nothing more than white sugar rolled in a fresh lettuce leaf and never called to dinner until we called ourselves, our stomachs sounding like the timbers in a clinker boat finally riding at anchor for the night.

Once in Japan, the plot seems to thicken, but the full implications of the Leibovitz thread of the story haven’t been elucidated. Butcher is happy to find his show has gone well, but feels dislocated by the knowledge this gives him. Marlene tries to educate him — and us — on the machinations of the top end of town where art is concerned, but we don’t get the full wrap yet. It’s only half-way through the book and there’s plenty of time for the wrap-up.

That morning, after breakfast, we both returned to the scene of the crime at Mitsukoshi. I expected I would feel better when we entered. We both expected it, I think. But instead my work seemed lost and alien, almost meaningless, like wretched polar bears in a north Queensland zoo. What did these punters think? I asked a fellow with a blond streak on his head, but that was later, after lunch. I had been drinking, and Marlene shooshed me and we went out in the streets and walked a little, not stopping at the bars.

Carey has a store of apt and humorous lines. Travelling to New York is like “being bounced through the heavens like a ping-pong ball inside a gumboot.”

In New York, the plot starts to thicken. We are, after all, in the centre of the cultural world. After getting rid of Hugh, Marlene and Butcher do the galleries, including MoMA. When Marlene goes off to do her art business, Butcher goes off to sketch.

Did I love New York? I loved her. If she had been with me every day, I doubt I would have picked up the ink sticks, but the business of the Leibovitz dragged on. So when my genius little thief went out like a pooka playing tricks, I put on my twenty-dollar coat and took my ink sticks and sketchpad, first down the block onto Canal Street, then onto Chinatown, East Broadway, then the deep charcoal shadows beneath the Manhattan Bridge, and from there to an awful place beneath the FDR at 21st Street, the undercarriage of a crashed machine, abandoned, scabs of rust and concrete falling as I worked.

As the facts are revealed, our interest mounts. While Hugh flutters grimly in the background, Marlene’s revelations come as a release, propelling the narrative forward. The reappearance of Amberstreet, the skinny detective from Bellingen and Sydney, in New York, makes the novel almost appear as a cross-genre novel: literary and crime fiction rolled into one. And while the crimes are finally high-brow, the influence on Butcher of these secret dealings is catastrophic. He turns in on himself. Having already spent time inside as a result of his behaviour after his divorce, Butcher appears to have assimilated some of the cunning of a crim and goes about his work with customary gusto.

The novel is successful and worth reading. The alternation of the narrative focalisation between Hugh and Butcher is nice. Hugh’s comic take on life is a relief from the concentrated despair of Butcher, who flails around situations without ever coming to grips with their reality. Marlene is a smooth operator, a model for a movie villainess, all skinny agility and purposeful talk.

The nature of the art world is here revealed, but the movements and doings of art dealers is not adequately gone into, although it is frequently decried by Butcher in his normal abrupt voice. He doesn’t like much, but he likes Marlene a lot. He’s almost a tragic character, like a wounded tough guy, a bit of an outsider who is wasted by life but loves deeply. This would make a good movie.

1 comment:

ghost said...

Ha. I'm very happy to have found a positive review in the blogs of the book after all
I loved it too http://shigekuni.wordpress.com/2010/05/15/koalas-peter-careys-theft-a-love-story/
and suspected I was going daft.

Glad to see 'tis not so.