Peter Carey's art-world comedy-mystery Theft includes a few literal thefts—canvasses spirited away in the dead of night—but the book is more preoccupied with the metaphorical. Carey's protagonist, Michael Boone (a.k.a. Michael Bones, a.k.a. "The Butcher") is a fading Australian painter, drummed out of Sydney in the early '80s when his marriage fails and his auction prices start to fall. Stuck in a marsh-side cabin with his hulking, brain-damaged brother Hugh, Michael produces some of the best work of his life, and he winds up on the radar screen of upstart art dealer Marlene, who brings him into a counterfeiting conspiracy that involves Japanese collectors, long-lost French paintings, and the inflated Reagan-era New York art market.

Carey hits that last element hardest. At one point, Michael marvels at Marlene's ability to bewitch buyers with mock catalogues, saying, "To judge a work, you don't read a fucking catalogue. You look as if your life depended on it." Yet even working-class Michael owes most of his art knowledge to reproductions and reputations. A lot of Theft's side action involves forgery, derivative styles, and the potential worth of unsigned sketches by acknowledged masters. All of which proves that what matters most about a work of art is not what people see, but what they can authenticate.

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As for Carey's art, he takes a lot of chances. Following some apparent unwritten guideline for Booker Prize-worthy writers, Carey challenges himself by giving over a good third of the text to the voice of Hugh, who has a child's eyes and a poet's soul. Hugh gets off some good lines, like calling an aesthete's eyelids "soft as a penis freshly bathed," but it's hard to follow what he's talking about half the time, especially once he and Michael get separated and readers don't have the clear-headed brother's version of the story to fall back on. Then again, bravura moves—like writing in the voice of an idiot savant—encompass a lot of what Theft is about. The book's best passages describe what's going through Michael's mind as he's slapping paint around, getting off on the application of color to color. It must be the same feeling Carey gets when he's stringing together sentences just for the pleasure of how the words sound in sequence.