In recent years I’ve had to get over my need for appealing main characters in the books I read—an immature need, I admit, but when my heroes were flawed, I needed them to be somehow lovable. Maybe I’ve just started to take more pleasure in reading about venal people, but I enjoyed the characters in Peter Carey’s novel Theft.
Ah, the Australian sensibility. Ah, the maleness of it all. Since I so often read female writers, it can be quite a change of pace to read a really manly male writer.
Theft is the story of Michael “Butcher” Boone, a successful Australian painter who came from the Australian boonies, and is down-and-out after his recent divorce. The novel chronicles Butcher's relationship with beautiful and mysterious Marlene Leibovitz, wife of Olivier Leibovitz, son of very famous painter Jacques Leibovitz. Butcher is also saddled with caring for his “damaged”, 220-lb. brother Hugh, with whom he shares the narration of the story.
Throughout the course of the story, Marlene involves Butcher in a plot to defraud the art world, which Butcher doesn’t mind doing, since he feels he’s been screwed over by that same world. Butcher and Hugh are never quite loveable, but they are mere bumblers compared to Marlene, the mastermind of the art fraud, and a master manipulator. Marlene leads Butcher down the path to feloniousness, but he is not innocent, either, and everyone's guilt and/or complicity is part of what makes this novel interesting.
As a thriller, the novel works but doesn’t dazzle—however, Carey’s use of language always dazzles. The prose is colorful and energetic, and Carey’s sense of humor is rapier sharp. His descriptions of the act of painting, of picking out pigments and mixing them and then creating art with them, are an absolute joy to read.