Well, yes and no. ‘Yes’ because he is quite obviously obsessed, albeit not exclusively, with the criminal mind. ‘No’ because you won’t find Peter Carey’s novels reviewed in some ‘Crime / Mystery Round-Up’ ghetto tucked away in the corner of a newspaper once a month, an afterthought to the other works of fiction deemed worthy of review. That is not to say that Carey’s novels, in that patronising phrase gaining currency, ‘transcend the genre’. But Carey himself, as an author, name and now virtually a brand, has. This should be a cause for celebration for writers of all genres and none.
THEFT is typically Carey, in that it’s an exercise in debunking myths, not only of its subject matter, the hysterically pretentious modern art world, but of the craft of writing itself. The story is told in twinned narrative voices, those of Butcher Bones and his ‘idiot savant’ brother Slow Bones, and while both offer a refreshingly earthy and distinctively Aussie take on the art world, it’s Slow Bones who steals the show. Reminiscent in his interior monologues of Patrick McCabe’s THE BUTCHER BOY, which in its turn owes a debt to Jim Thompson’s THE KILLER INSIDE ME, the childlike Slow Bones is by turns crude, perceptive, insightful and potentially homicidal. A pawn in the hands of his ambitious artist brother Butcher, and Butcher’s ruthless lover and art authenticator Marlene, Slow Bones is a deranged angel, his infantile yearnings the only hope for morality in a world in which all reference points, including the quality of the art that sells for millions, are by definition subjective. Carey can’t resist the occasional poetic flourish, but for the most part THEFT reads like it could have been written by (an admittedly giddy) David Goodis or Gil Brewer. Says Butcher:
I have told this bloody story so often. I am accustomed to the expression on my listeners’ faces and I know there must be some essential detail I omit. Most likely that detail is my character, a flaw passed from Blue Bones’ rotten sperm to my own corrupted clay. For I can never have anyone really feel why her confession so thrilled me, why I devoured her slippery soft-muscled mouth in the dancing light of country barbecue near the Shinjuku railway station.The real charm here is the way in which Carey addresses some pertinent questions to anyone who loves books. Who decides what is art and what is not? Is anyone truly entitled to claim the role of ‘authenticator’? Can a novel be considered literary if its story is told in (deliciously) profane vernacular? Carey, clearly one of the most gifted wordsmiths of his generation, could easily have told the story of THEFT in any style he chose, from hardboiled prose to a baroque parody of the language used by those who inhabit the rarefied atmosphere of modern art. That he chose not only to puncture the bubble of self-aggrandizing, mutual deception that characterises the art world, but does so in a manner akin to Pollock spattering bullshit all over its ostensibly pristine canvas, the whole shot through with crime fiction tropes, suggests that the gap between what is considered literary and genre fiction may well need to be radically reassessed in the near future.
So she was a crook!
Oh the horror! Fuck me dead!
For the two to be given equal footing will require the majority of crime writers to improve their prose, and for the majority of literary writers to hone their story-telling – or at least try to remember that the fundamental point of any book is the story it tells. For now, though, the likes of Peter Carey on the one hand and James Lee Burke on the other, both superb and popular stylists who revel in the possibilities of a good story, are close enough to shake hands if they so choose. It may take a bit of work, but there’s no good reason why other writers shouldn’t be able to slip into the wake created by their momentum and produce work that acknowledges its debts and roots but is not confined to any particular genre, or none. – Declan Burke