HERE & NOW
Published in Qweekend Magazine, Saturday, April 1, 2006
“THERE are a couple of things I’ve been looking at lately and I want you to see them.” Novelist Peter Carey has telephoned my hotel room on this bitterly cold Sunday in New York, and he sounds somewhat conspiratorial, almost cryptic.
“At the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) – that’s at Fifth Avenue and 81st - there’s Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines. Walk up another eight blocks or so to the Guggenheim (Museum). The David Smith sculptures. They’re really lovely. They’re a good enough reason for living. And while you’re there, check out the Rothko and the de Kooning in the first room on the right. I was there this morning. I’m urging you to get out of your room, despite the jetlag, and see them.”
I’m unsure if this is an order, a generous cultural gesture from a long-time Australian New Yorker to a fellow Australian, or a test. Carey’s latest novel – Theft: A Love Story – whirls around modern art, the world of painters and dealers, critics and buyers, forgers and fraudsters – and I become convinced our most esteemed living novelist is offering me a trail of breadcrumbs not just into his new book but, perhaps, into his strange and pyrotechnic psyche.
So I do as he bids and walk from West 57th Street, past the waiting rows of carriages and horses - their heads veiled in steam - at Central Park South, through the sub-zero shadows of skyscrapers and blocks of pale light, to the warmth of the Guggenheim and Carey’s possible clues.
In the Guggenheim, that remarkable egg-like Frank Lloyd Wright-designed masterpiece that opened in 1959, New Yorkers are thawing out with that querulous, almost stunned look that all amateur Sunday afternoon art gallery browsers adopt across the world.
What has Carey seen here? The David Smith exhibition begins with tiny figures of steel and coral fragments from the 1930s, and as you ease through and up the spiral of the white museum – like ants in a conch shell – you can literally trace the development of the American artist over thirty years of welding and riveting. There are birds and roosters, houses and wombs, flowers and faces.
The next day the The New Yorker magazine would write, in a way that would set the teeth of Carey’s garrulous artist-hero in Theft, Butcher Bones, grinding: “Distance and a milky radiance flatten the latter works into lyrical ciphers, completing the great helix like musical notes on a spooling staff.”
Looking down into the museum from the top ramp, I wonder – what is Carey, the boy from rural Bacchus Marsh in western Victoria, telling me? What am I searching for here inside the mysterious cosy head of the Guggenheim?
Jerry’s Restaurant and Bar in Prince Street, down in southern Manhattan’s funky SoHo district, has been called “a diner with a college education”. It carries arty black and white photographs on the walls, has a long sleek bar, and red banquets.
It is one of Carey’s favourites for breakfast, and he arrives punctually at around 9am dressed in a melange of greys and blacks. As he removes his coat at the front of the restaurant, his height surprises you. He is over six feet, and gangly as a teenager. His hair is grey and unruly, but not quite as unkempt as that of one of the characters in Theft, whose hair “looked like cattle had been eating it”. (Carey has written of himself: “I never look right. I am messy. Also, I don’t know how people get their hair so tidy…”)
He orders coffee, bacon and eggs. His accent is still powerfully Australian, glinting only rarely with the hard chrome of American twang. (Is it always this way, or chameleon-like, tuning into familiar timbres and resonances in the vicinity of another Australian voice?) His eyes, bespectacled, are rheumy with the cold. He has a sniffle.
“Did you know, this is the longest I’ve lived in any city in my life?” he says. “Who was that mayor you had in Brisbane, the one who was a priest?” Jim Soorley. “Years ago he offered me the top floor of the Powerhouse (Museum). ‘Peter, we want you to live in Brisbane,’ he said. ‘How can we make this happen? What about the Powerhouse?’ If I were to live back in Australia it would be in Brisbane. I could have a nice house on stumps, and weather that was agreeable most of the year.” (Soorley confirms the offer and says if he were still mayor the invitation would remain open to Carey: “How could you withdraw an offer like that to a world class writer like Peter?”)
Carey clasps his warm coffee and talks about his years as a young writer living an “alternative lifestyle” in Yandina on the Sunshine Coast, and Bellingen in northern NSW, and the early 80s in Sydney when he started up an advertising agency – McSpedden Carey – with friend Bani McSpedden. (Some of the advertising works of Carey and his former cohorts included ads for Tic Tac mints, John West canned fish and Lindeman’s wine.)
There is a residue of nostalgia about Carey, 62, at this moment, and he speaks of his Australian past with such affection it could almost be a lucky rabbit’s foot he carries around in his pocket at all times, there to be clasped for solace.
Or it could be part of the afterglow of writing Theft, a fiercely Australian comic work that explores the landscapes of his past that he has never fully visited in his fiction. He would later admit to the thrills this afforded him: “It’s a huge pleasure to realise I could visit Australian place and landscape in a way I never have before. You know you spend all your life writing, but I’ve never done this. I’ve lifted it straight from a place, straight from my life. And of course there is a tendency, for certain journalists, to read all this autobiographically, which it’s not. But I know these places intimately, and they all came back to me in extraordinary detail.”
He finishes breakfast although his plate of curly bacon rashes is only half-eaten. “Offer my commiserations to the pig,” he tells the waiter as the plate is taken away.
“Now,” Carey says, “let me walk you through a few streets and places that appear in the novel.”
Theft: A Love Story, Carey’s ninth novel, is the tale of heavy-drinking Australian artist and former meat worker Butcher Bones, who had “once been about as famous as a painter could expect in his own backyard”. After an acrimonious divorce, which involves losing his eight-year-old son and most of his worldly assets, he is jailed for trying to retrieve his best paintings from the former marital home.
On his release from Sydney’s Long Bay Prison – his reputation in tatters, his stocks as an artist severely diminished, his fame obliterated – he repairs to the Bellingen property of his biggest collector, Jean Paul Milan, along with his 220lb idiot-savant brother Hugh to rebuild his life, and his talent.
Just weeks into this new existence, the mysterious American art expert, Marlene, pulls her car into the driveway. She is looking for Butcher’s neighbour, Dozy Boylan, who, it transpires, is in possession of an original masterpiece by the feted European painter Jacques Leibovitz. Marlene is there to authenticate the work. Butcher deems her the “enemy” from the commercial side of the art world.
Then Butcher and Marlene begin a romance, the Leibovitz mysteriously disappears, the police investigate, and Carey’s novel becomes a flywheel of comic misadventures, deceit, double-dealing and illusion that spills from the streets of Sydney to Tokyo to SoHo, one of the art meccas of the world.
“There’s Fanelli’s,” Carey says as we stroll a short distance from Jerry’s to the corner of Mercer Street. We stand momentarily in front of the bar and café, a former speakeasy that served homemade distilled bathtub gin during Prohibition. The Fanelli’s sign is blood-red neon. “That’s where Butcher has a drink when they first get to New York.”
Further down cobbled Mercer Street, Carey stops and stares up at an old apartment building with majestically tall windows. “I think this is where the loft is where Marlene and Butcher stay in New York,” he says. “Or this is where I imagined it to be, in the book. Look at those windows. I love those windows. You’d pay a lot for windows like that in New York.”
Carey knows this turf. When he first moved to the city in late 1989, he and his then wife, theatre director Alison Summers, purchased a duplex in Bedford Street, Greenwich Village. (Summers and Carey, who separated in 2003, are now divorced. They have two sons - Charley, 15, and Sam, 19.)
“I think my (ex-) wife believes she came here for me, but maybe not,” Carey says. “My version of the story is she wanted to come and direct theatre in New York. There was no reason for me to come here from a career point of view. I’d just won the Booker Prize. I had a very good publisher and a very good agent. Probably, in the end, if you want to talk about those things, it hasn’t hurt me. You follow your life, you choose the thing that energises you at the time. I was rather frightened of New York when I first came here, quite frightened of it, and now I love this city. As a city, I love it more than any other city on earth.” (This, despite the fact that Summers was shopping in one of the Twin Towers when terrorists struck on the morning of September 11, 2001, prompting Carey to famously write in the aftermath: “There is no God for me.”)
Friend and colleague, the Irish writer Colum McCann, says Carey is very much the New Yorker. “Peter is pure New York. He's comfortable here. Like a lot of people who are away from home - myself included - he holds onto aspects of where he came from. New York is a city that's never really interested in your past. It's your present tense that matters. So Peter has kept himself in a present tense, I suppose, both as a New Yorker and an Australian. It's a good mix. It also manages to keep him humble. I'm always surprised by his humility.”
We walk swiftly to the subway. Carey’s leaking nose is wreaking havoc. We take the green line #4 train to Hunter College, part of the City University of New York, up near Lexington Avenue and the East 60s.
It is at Hunter, as professor of literature and the college’s creative writing program director, that another Peter Carey exists– the teacher, the “academic”, the mentor. It is an unexamined side to his life.
As the subway train rumbles along beneath the city streets, it feels we have crossed an invisible border – from the Downtown Carey, the semi-reclusive writer, to the public Professor Carey of the Upper East Side.
“He has a way of humiliating you and your work, and afterwards you think he’s the greatest guy on earth. I don’t know how that happens.” David Rogers, 32, and a publishing assistant, is one of Carey’s writing students at Hunter College. He and three fellow second-year students are puzzling over the curious powers of Peter Carey, the teacher, in an Italian wine bar not far from the college.
“And he’s not a gentle person,” says Emily Stone, 37, a yoga teacher. “He has a strong personality. He uses his powers for good, not evil.” David continues: “If he rips you to shreds he’ll come up to you later and say – ‘I hope that wasn’t too harsh’.”
Jeff Rotter, 37, a television writer, and Concetta Ceriello, 26, who by day works in her family’s Italian butcher shop, concur that having a two-time Booker prize winner for a teacher can be daunting. “He’s very interested in our work, which is insane because he’s Peter Carey,” says Jeff. “I think we were all a little starstruck.”
David adds: “We’re all pretty blown away by his writing, particularly when he rewrites your sentences in class. He always has his eye on the bigger picture.” Concetta says he fits in sartorially because “he always wears black”. And Emily gives him the ultimate accolade: “He’s fast and sarcastic, like a New Yorker.”
It is difficult to see Carey as an academic in the strictest sense, especially in light of his view of them in an interview several years ago: “When I was very young and my books were first noticed by academics, I used to get very superior about how stupid they were.” He has previously taught at New York University, Columbia, Princeton and other campuses.
To observe him at Hunter, though, is to witness a writer enervated by the creative process, seriously engaged in his students’ work and welfare, and determined to give back to his craft and change young people’s lives.
He operates out of a tiny office. It redefines spartan, containing a small desk, an Apple computer, a mounted bookshelf and a guest’s chair. There is one small picture on the wall, and only a handful of his own works on the bookshelf. Carey’s name is not on the door. Just a number.
He is assessing the writings of potential students for the forthcoming semester. “Here, look at this and tell me what you think,” he says, calling up a student’s short story on the computer.
Later, he and a colleague debate one particular application. The candidate, a male in his 30s who still lives with his mother, has sent in a sample of his fiction. It features a very unusual horse. Carey is intrigued.
“I don’t know whether this guy is a complete nut or a genius,” the colleague says, worried. “I think he might be interesting,” says Carey, leaning back in his chair. “I’ll get him in here. I guarantee you he’s a nice guy.” The colleague smiles uneasily.
McCann, a celebrated novelist in his own right, who teaches with Carey at Hunter, says: “I think Peter knows that nothing exciting is ever achieved through predictability. As a novelist he knows this, of course - every page testifies to that. But as a person operating in an academic environment, as distinct from a pure academic, which he's not, he knows it intuitively. He has single-handedly turned the Hunter Creative Writing Program into the one of the very best in the country. It has become a place that many of the bigger creative writing programs are scared of.”
Guest speakers and teachers to the program, under Carey’s watch, have included Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie, Richard Price and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison.
“I don't think the program is his heart and soul, but it is extremely important to him,” says McCann. “ In fact I don't think it would be a good thing if the program was his sole focus - we'd lose out on the books and in the end it will be his books that matter.”
Carey’s teaching officially occupies him one day a week, although there are obvious extracurricular demands. He insists he has to have a job “because I’ve got two teenage boys living in New York”.
Carey says Hunter’s huge multicultural mix is what excites him the most. “I had students from India, British Guiana, people from all over,” he adds. “They were really surprised that I understood a great deal about colonialism. And that I understood a great deal about writing in your own language and not compromising yourself, about telling your own stories. You want to write about British Guiana? I can help you. You don’t know anybody better than me in this whole city to help you. What I discovered was that being an Australian in the United States, I was really vitally connected to them.”
Theft: A Love Story is a riotous, freewheeling romp of a book, reminiscent of the effervescent Illywhacker, full of cheek and gags and even a murder mystery, yet underpinned by profound questions on the nature of culture and who defines it. You can’t help feeling Carey had a lot of fun in Theft’s creation.
“If the book is successful then it should feel like you’ve had a lot of fun writing it, even if the reality is different,” he says. “Looking at ballet dancers and the amazing things they do on stage, you don’t know if their muscles are aching or their bones are breaking, you don’t see the pain at all. You just see grace and ease.”
The novel again explores his interest in fakery, forgery, and the inexhaustible range of human duplicity. “I was thinking - every country has its artistic hoaxes,” he says. “Why are they such a big deal for us (Australians)? I began to think that it was about our relationship to the metropolitan centers. We were (and maybe still are) asking overseas experts, as they used to be called, to judge our cultural achievements. We are the periphery. They are the centre. They have the power. Theft is about the center and the periphery. Butcher is a wonderful painter, if an imperfect human being. His work cannot be seen in the clouded fashion-conscious eyes of the centre. Part of the story is about his revenge, the triumph of the man from iron bark.”
Carey thrillingly skewers the entire construct of the art world, its critics, promoters, dealers, and the whole array of personnel that exist in its murky wake. As Bones declares, of art and life, at the end of the book: “How do you know how much to pay if you don’t know what it’s worth?”
More interestingly, through the voice of Hugh, the loveable dullard, Carey pins down the quirkiness of an Australian idiom on the brink of extinction. A magpie with words, and brutally sarcastic to boot, Hugh gave Carey a chance to “create a really new voice”.
Hugh’s exhortations are recorded in the novel in capital letters, so someone, for example, can be a NERVOUS NELLY, a FARTING HORSE NEVER TIRES, drunk people are STONKERED, and an erection can be THROBBING LIKE A SOCK FULL OF GRASSHOPPERS. This can be excruciatingly funny, but it also serves to resuscitate words and phrases from another era to the point where they strike the reader as “new”.
For Hugh’s voice, Carey drew heavily on his memories of growing up in Bacchus Marsh, where the family had the General Motors dealership. “We were not rich in any conceivable way,” says Carey. “My parents worked their butts off. It was all work, work, work, work, work. There weren’t any luxuries. They’d go to the butcher’s and get a T-bone steak. We thought we were having good food. No one was hungry. My father used to say – ‘You’d go all over the world and you wouldn’t get a better feed than this’.”
Carey himself was shipped off to boarding school in Geelong when he was a boy (“It’s why there are so many orphans in my books.”), before studying for a science degree at Monash University. He drifted into advertising where he met other writers like Barry Oakley.
In Theft, Butcher describes Marlene’s journey from a narrow rural life to the wider world: “…she quietly, triumphantly, entered a completely unmapped ocean, and was gob-smacked, like Cortez, or like Keats himself, to see what the conditions of birth and geography had hidden from her i.e. the true wonder of bloody everything, no less.” It takes no imaginative leap to see this as a description of a young Carey discovering the complicated riches of life beyond Bacchus Marsh, or even Australia.
Composer Peter Best worked with Carey in advertising in the early years. “I think his relationship with advertising, like mine, was driven by a sense of fun, a sort of joy we got from playing games with pictures, words and music,” Best says. “It was like doing puzzles and cheering when you got them out. He also enjoyed the combative relationship he had as a creative person with the people we all called ‘suits’. They tended to regard people like Peter as dangerous anarchists who had to be watched carefully, and he liked to provoke them, especially if he didn't like them, and there were plenty he didn't like.”
Carey had written four unpublished novels before his short story collection, The Fat Man in History, was released by University of Queensland Press in 1974. In 1985 the epic Illywhacker brought him international attention, then Oscar and Lucinda (1988) cemented his reputation, winning him his first Booker Prize. He won again for his masterpiece True History of the Kelly Gang in 2001, prompting critic Peter Craven to suggest it was “possible” Carey might one day carry off the Nobel Prize in Literature.
At our final meeting – lunch at another of his local eateries, the Savoy, again in SoHo - he says he does not think about his previous work, or the accolades. He concedes his life could have taken a very different turn.
“I would never have left Bacchus Marsh if there’d been room for me in the family car business,” he says matter-of-factly. Is he serious? No writing? No New York? “Yes. My family is still in Bacchus Marsh. These people have rich, complicated, rewarding, interesting lives. So, I think I would probably - if one had a chance to look - prefer the life I have now than a life in the car business. But not everyone is being a writer or an artist and if you somehow thought that you were doing something that was deeply superior, what could you ever write? Do you know what I’m saying?”
Carey is embedded in a new novel, set in Yandina, and chuckles at the writer’s lot: “I’ve been thinking about this bird, a pitta bird, also known as the jewelled thrush, and of course, it’s stupid of me to say anything to anybody, it’s so uninteresting, but I’m so happy to have been where I’ve been in my head all morning. It’s a very strange way to live and of course it’s not normal but if that’s what you do ever day, how blessed can that be?”
He is reticent to talk of his private life, and has heard whispers that a particular Sydney journalist and publication wish to do a “job” on him over his divorce to Alison Summers. He is incredulous that this is of any interest to the public.
“How about we just say this,” Carey says. “I’ve been through a divorce. Divorces - and half of your readers will have been through them – are horrible. They’re horrible for everybody. There’s no such thing as a good divorce. Everybody’s going to be injured, shattered. The children, adults, and so on.
“It isn’t like this (Theft) is a ‘divorce book’, the last four books have been divorce books. It’s been going on forever. The thing is, after all this, I met someone, and suddenly rather than think my life was over, my life began again. And yes, I am happy. I’m not saying I’m living a life without any pain or turmoil, but I’m happy, and if that shows in my work, good.”
He then leans towards my tape recorder. “That’s ON the record,” he says into it, almost Hugh-like, and sits back with a smile.
There was a clue in the Guggenheim after all, but I had missed it, and it wasn’t until my last meeting with Carey that it was revealed.
I had seen the marvellous works of David Smith, the de Kooning and the Rothko, and stood giddily at the top of the museum, looking down through its white spiral to the ground floor, busy with art lovers.
Days later, Carey handed me the key to what I was looking at: “I feel I’m starting to get sort of better (as a writer). I’m starting to feel I can do things I couldn’t do before. I’m doing things with sentences that I wouldn’t have even thought about before.
“I don’t know, one would like to make something that has never existed in the world before, and you would like it to grow out of your own soil and you’d like to have a sort of confidence of being able to handle the material in such a way you could slap it around and do anything with it with some sense of control. A lot of the painters I’ve told you about had it, and sculptors. Mastery is what you’d aim for. The way I’m talking is ahead of what I’m doing.
“But to produce tensions which push the language into somewhere new, you’re stretching all the time for the thing that’s true and broken and strange. Like de Kooning and Rothko….”
It is warm and stimulating inside the great white head of the Guggenheim, a crucible of mastery. Smith’s art depicts a whole world. At that moment, in an apartment in Downtown Manhattan, Peter Carey is putting together the words and sentences of a new book – his whole new world - as a Noisy Pitta bird skitters through his imagination.
As for the rest of us, we huddle around the warmth of great art, of literature, just as people have been attracted, forever, to the warmth and light of a fire. It is what Carey has tried to show me. The heat generated by great art. The friction that comes out of the struggle for mastery.
Outside, freezing winds tear down Fifth Avenue.
* Theft: A Love Story by Peter Carey is published by Knopf ($45). Carey will be appearing at the Ithaca Auditorium, Brisbane City Hall, on Friday, April 7, at 6pm.