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Murder, genius, and art jostle together on a crowded canvas

There is more than a little authorial winking as "Theft: A Love Story,' set in Australia and the New York art world, turns into satirical allegory.

Theft: A Love Story
By Peter Carey
Knopf, 269 pp., $24

The Australian Peter Carey is a choral group; from novel to novel he soars or plunges from voice to voice, each with its differently piercing note and, for commonality, just a hint of disconcert.

There is the silken 19th-century romance of Oscar and Lucinda sailing a glass church along a crook-backed outback river. There is the gripping reconstruction of Australian outlaws a century ago in ''True History of the Kelly Gang"; a flamboyant imagining of the later life of Magwitch, a Dickens character, in ''Jack Maggs"; the fog-footed futurism of ''The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith"; and the picaresque noir, set among a clan of Sydney roughnecks, of ''The Tax Inspector."

In ''Theft" Carey has loosed several different voices at once. Each is full-throated and vividly conceived, but they don't quite blend; and the rather ragged effect is more a matter of talking at once than talking together.

The book is an interesting but uneven mix of novel and thesis. The latter is Carey's exploration of the contemporary art world and his conclusion that it is largely sham and lemming-like snobbery. The first is the double custard pie he launches at it: two inflamed working-class Australians, one a brilliant but unfashionable painter, the other the partly autistic and unpredictably inspired brother who lives with him in a state of odd mutual dependence.

The story is told alternately in the cynical, embittered voice of Michael Boone, the painter, and the part-incoherent and sometimes startlingly apt words of the handicapped but formidable Hugh.

They are sons of a wild-spirited, hard-drinking Sydney butcher for whom Michael worked -- hence his nickname ''Butcher" -- until he discovered a talent for painting. For some years his passionately emotional canvasses won him local fame and high prices.

Then the late-arriving currents of modernism and post-modernism shriveled his vogue. A jail term for breaking into his ex-wife's house to repossess his paintings completed his shipwreck. The novel begins when a rich collector sets him up in a country house, complete with studio.

There, after wrecking its elaborate decor so as to convert it to his own rough use, he embarks on a whirlwind of frenzied work, complete with heavy drinking and impassioned railing against the art world. His blowhard scorn extends to his benefactor, whose account he charges to buy bolts of the finest canvas, boxes of the most expensive paints, and, through a variety of scams, funds for food and liquor.

The pair are soon joined by Marlene, slim and blond, who, shod in Manolo Blahniks, squelches her way through a near-typhoon to take refuge with them. She and Butcher become lovers. And she has an agenda in mind that only gradually becomes evident. Even at the end -- because Carey, even when not at his best, is an artist -- it retains a haunting ambiguousness.

The story shifts to Tokyo, where Marlene has arranged a showing of Butcher's new paintings, all of which are bought by a billionaire collector. Carey's best insight comes here: Butcher feels ravished. For the painter, a mass purchase makes it seem that his entire burst of creation has been made to disappear.

The couple move on to New York (Hugh, inseparable, helpless, and engagingly vociferous, soon joins them), where Butcher finds himself snubbed by the galleries. Gradually, an elaborate subplot is played out. It has Marlene smuggling out of Australia a canvas by Leibovitz -- Carey invents him as a celebrated peer of Picasso and Matisse -- who was the father of her estranged husband, Olivier.

All kinds of skulduggery emerge. There is the purloining of Leibovitz's late paintings by his widow, who had engaged in retouchings and forgeries to make them seem to be earlier and more valuable work.

There is the invaluable ''droit morale" (moral right) assigned under the French system, which gives a painter's heir an important voice in authenticating a painter's work. There is the transfer of this right to Olivier after his mother's death, and, suddenly, Olivier's mysterious murder.

Bit by bit Marlene reveals her increasingly dubious involvement in all this. Butcher loyally supports her, in part because he is besotted. Also because he sees in her, as in himself, the outsider pitted against an art establishment governed by money and buzz rather than esthetic judgment.

Support ends when one last revelation leads to a rupture, after which he and Hugh return to Sydney. With Butcher's work now entirely in the hands of the Japanese collector -- and thus, effectively, nonexistent -- the brothers set up a lawn-mowing business. Then, in a final twist, all is made well.

There is more than a little authorial winking as the novel turns into satirical allegory. In fact Carey doesn't manage to bond the meaty, sometimes tedious reality of Butcher, the more enticing mystery of Marlene, and the arresting if also sometimes tedious wildness of Hugh with his airy critique of the art world.

Further, it is all very well for a novelist to set up the figure of an artist of genius, even with a wink or two; but it's much harder to give a reader reasons for believing it.

Richard Eder reviews books for several publications.

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