THEFT by Peter Carey (Random House), 274 pages, $32.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNN
Sexy, messy, surprising, Theft cements Peter Carey's rep as one of the foremost thinkers on the subject of creativity and intellectual property. In this pointed, sometimes hilarious tale set in the early-80s art worlds of Sydney, Australia, Tokyo and New York, over-the-hill - at 37, no less - painter Michael Boone is a complex guy. He's full of rage - his son has died, the art establishment and his ex-wife have dumped him - but also terribly tender toward his idiot-savant brother Hugh, who's become his ward and lives under his roof.
When he meets the mysterious Marlene, widow of the son of one of Picasso's artist cronies, he falls hard and fast. When she arranges a show for him in Tokyo with hopes of taking him to New York, we suspect she's up to something - and so does Boone.
We know it has to do with art theft and forgery, and that she wants to make Boone complicit, but it takes a few hundred pages to figure out what's going on. Either way, Boone couldn't care less that his lovely Marlene might be using him.
The novel's most brilliant stroke is Carey's strategy of alternating the story's point of view between Boone and Hugh. When Boone's speaking, we get outrageous and gorgeous insights into the creative process, the passion for colour, the jealousies, the bitterness.
And when Hugh takes the lead, we get a deft portrait of a man who's obviously not right in the head but who is definitely not stupid.
Forget about the fact that the Manolo Blahniks Marlene wears didn't even exist in 1981, or that the notion of an artist in his 30s receiving a full retrospective - even in Australia - is barely credible.
What is believable is the portrait of the artist and the brother who loves him.