Author: Peter Carey
Press Year: 2006
For this reason, the novel actually begins knee-deep in the thick of it. Michael “Butcher” Bones, has just been released from jail after attempting to steal his own masterpiece back from his ex wife’s house. Butcher is now older and instead of a fresh-faced painter, his paintings are fresh out of style. But he is not alone. Butcher is caretaker to his “damaged 200 pound” brother Hugh: a relationship built on historical mistrust and war, especially now that Hugh feels neglected by Butcher’s selfish stint in prison.
The broke but ever resilient Butcher decides to take refuge at the country abode of his last remaining patron: the pretentious Jean-Paul Milan, who is vainly hoping Butcher’s work will return to the fashionable galleries he once occupied.
And it is in his setting that a sophisticated stranger walks straight into the chaotic sandwich that is Butcher and Hugh’s warring existence; trudging through Jean-Paul’s swollen, muddy paddock in her shiny Manolo Blahniks.
Her name is Marlene Leibovitz and she isn’t here for Butcher. Marlene is a big fish in the art business, but her involvement will see both Butcher and Hugh involved in a mystery and each other’s lives.
It is the storyline that runs from here that makes the novel so damn hard to categorize. It is part family drama, part crime scene, part Bond movie, part murder mystery and part love story. With so much to cover some authors would leave their audience trying to case after the storyline the way you flag down a bus, but there is nothing frantic, nothing difficult about following Carey’s work. It is so fluent that it seems almost musical and it’s not hard to imagine the bulk of it ending up as a movie one day.
Only it’s so complete as a novel it would be a shame to see it in film. Particularly so is the dual narration of Butcher and Hugh which contextualises the perpetual war between the brothers, and the most startling example of Carey’s talent in creating voice. Butcher with his abrasive, pessimistic, ‘fuck you’ attitude to his art- the love of his life and the bane of his existence- is a firm departure from his brother. Hugh’s chapters are pure genius as deals with the past that haunted the two brothers, and the cards fate dealt him in being in the care of the arrogant Butcher. Carey writes Hugh in a style that both delicately shapes his mental condition and artfully draws from it: they are hyphenated, cryptic, illogical, capitalized and yet beautifully, beautifully poetic passages. These intertwining chapters and perspectives detail the true anger and conflict between the two brothers that runs parallel to storyline of the novel.
The other confession that the voice reveals is the relationship between Carey and Butcher. Carey uses Butcher to lament the woes of the artist and the similarities between the two are wanton to be ignored. Both Carey and Butcher come from Bacchus Marsh in Victoria: a small, artless town in the middle of nowhere. Butcher is frustrated by the difficulties of staying in fashion given this type of beginning in life: in poor backwards Australia, which is always at the end of the world in every respect. Carey, unlike Butcher, managed to jump ship and reside in the U.S, which is a dream of the unlucky Butcher who instead struggles against his fate.
And that’s what this novel is mostly about. You need not be an expert in art to understand poor Butcher and his hubris, because, for something about art, it is surprising lowbrow. It is full of odors and bodily functions, struggle and failure- basically, all the humanity that comes from behind the art.