Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: THEFT: A LOVE STORY by Peter Carey

Peter Carey understands that crime is a means and not an end in itself. THE ILLYWHACKER tells the story of Herbert Badgery, ‘self-admitted liar, trickster, and confidence man’; JACK MAGGS explores what might have happened to Dickens’ banished convict Magwitch; THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG doesn’t do exactly what it says on the tin, but instead fictionalises the infamous Australian outlaws; MY LIFE AS A FAKE concerns itself with literary hoax, while THEFT: A LOVE STORY engages with hoaxing and fakery in the world of modern art. But is Carey, twice a winner of the Man Booker Prize, a crime fiction author?
  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.
  So she was a crook!
  Oh the horror! Fuck me dead!
  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.
  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


Cissy Strutt said...

I've almost finished Carey's latest - His Illegal Self. It concerns crimes accidental and intentional, though I hadn't thought of it that way til I read your review here.

Even going way back to Bliss, and the sticky crimes committed on and by the family members.

Thanks for this post. You've made me look at something very familiar, but rotated a quarter turn to reveal a new angle.

Declan Burke said...

Hi Cissy - I'm about to start into His Illegal Self, actually ... "crimes accidental and intentional", I like that. Thanks for dropping by, Dec