The two-time Booker-winner’s ninth novel is a feisty ironic comedy focused on a failed painter who’d give Joyce Cary’s Gully Jimson a run for his money.
If either of them had any, that is. Peter Carey’s bilious protagonist Michael “Butcher” Boone is the intellectual black sheep of a rowdy Australian clan locally famous for its profession of slaughtering and marketing livestock and its predilection for booze-fueled misbehavior. When Butcher, some time after a prison term handed him for an art-related criminal rampage, considers taking up painting again, his semi-good intentions are foiled by two brazenly unconventional characters. His mentally challenged brother Hugh, a bearlike innocent who speaks an odd gnomic mixture of tearful nonsense and hair-raisingly imaginative naïf poetry, continues to assert urgent claims on his sibling’s reluctant stewardship. Enter Marlene, a succulently sexual mystery woman with family ties to the mistress of legendary Picasso-like renegade painter Jacques Leibovitz. Seducing Butcher is child’s play to this manipulative siren, who gradually involves the agreeably amoral artist in a trip to Japan (for an exhibition which, Marlene promises, will restore his celebrity), duplicitous recreations of canvasses produced by both Leibovitz and his wily mistress, Dominique, and ongoing tussles with the “art police” (specifically, Butcher’s Javert, police detective Amberstreet)—all this in addition to the vague confusions endured by the helpless (though not at all clueless) Hugh. The serpentine plot is a brain-squeezing beauty, cunningly elaborated through the juxtaposed first-person narrations of Butcher and Hugh (a possible nod to Australian master Patrick White’s novel about emotionally conjoined twins, The Solid Mandala). But it’s the author’s mastery of details of artists’ lives and the racy energy of his prose that make this edgy, irreverent, often hilariously profane novel soar. In some ways a successor to Carey’s impudent picaresque Illywhacker (1985), it’s a certifiable hoot.
Is the endlessly inventive Carey on the Nobel shortlist? He ought to be.