Theft: A Love Story by Peter Carey Knopf, $220 Even if Peter Carey's ninth novel fails to win him a third Booker Prize, it's likely to be remembered as his most notorious work. In the month between its release in his native Australia and the US, Theft: A Love Story has been excavated for references to Carey's former wife, theatre director Alison Summers. Summers inspired the search when she claimed in Australian, US and British newspapers that Carey had twisted her into one of the novel's minor characters, the estranged wife of the protagonist who is known only as an 'alimony whore' or the Plaintiff. Carey's denial has only stoked the chatter. He might have been better off pointing out that for 25 years he has rivalled Graham Greene for turning the lives around him into fiction. Greene travelled the world looking for material, while Carey takes the ploy further by making other writers' characters and historical figures his own. Carey's biography - his upbringing as the son of a car salesman in rural Victoria and his successful career in advertising in Sydney and Melbourne - often forms the skeleton of his novels. But Michael 'Butcher Bones' Boone, the central character of Theft, is the closest to home. Butcher and Carey were born in the same year in the town of Bacchus Marsh and fled to become artists. Butcher ends up in New York (where Carey has lived since 1990) via Tokyo (which Carey visited with one of his sons for the non-fiction book Wrong About Japan). 'Eviscerated by divorce lawyers' and fresh from a stint in jail for trying to recover his paintings from the Plaintiff, Butcher is cut off from his son. Butcher is a painter whose few years in vogue have petered out, and here's where the fiction sets sail. Carey navigates the dilemma of a painter frantic for his work to be appreciated. But the spotlight has moved on to new trends and no amount of genius will break through the gatekeepers of art: dealers, lawyers, collectors and critics who bleed money and kudos after barely a glance at the work. With his own work now the property of the 'alimony whore', Butcher is left screaming at the art world: 'How can you know how much to pay if you don't know what it's worth?' Carey almost overcomes the aversion in Australian literature to contemporary settings. It's 1980 when Butcher begins his story at the farm of his biggest collector, near the town of Bellingen on the north coast of New South Wales. His few remaining friends have corralled him into staying at the house to paint while caring for Hugh, his 'damaged 220-pound brother'. The brothers share the commentary: Butcher has the crisp but flat voice that often threatens to stall Carey novels, but that voice is offset by Carey's flamboyantly grotesque action, and in Hugh he has an idiot savant narrator with a quirky delivery to contradict and enliven Butcher's account. The twin narration also works into Carey's fascination with the mercurial truth. When a beautiful woman turns up, Carey locks on to another favourite motif: cons, thievery and hoaxes. Marlene is married to the son of Jacques Leibovitz, a painter Butcher idolises. Fake Leibovitz works are rife, thanks to a decades-old scam pulled off by the painter's wife and her lover. The son has the legal right to authenticate Leibovitz paintings, and Marlene is in Bellingen to examine a work bought by Butcher's neighbour. The painting soon vanishes, making Marlene and Butcher suspects. They fall in love and cross the world to make Butcher an artist of international standing. He skips to the top of the Australian ladder when Marlene gets him an exhibition in Tokyo and arranges for a Japanese tycoon to buy all his work. Art experts will notice the exhibition, and the tycoon's monopoly will boost the market for the paintings. The question is whether Marlene is on the side of art and love or involved in the Leibovitz scam while orchestrating another swindle to propel Butcher to fame and rake in the profits. Carey toys with the mechanics of thrillers. But a taut plot holds little interest for him. The thread of the whodunnit is lost as he parades misshapen greed around Butcher, who, according to Hugh, 'was ignorant of anything that did not personally benefit him'. Desperate to escape his artless origins in Bacchus Marsh, Butcher adores Marlene's worldly class. But his lover is another escapee from rural Australia: Marlene's sophistication has been learnt on the job, as a secretary. She and Butcher can escape their small-town homes no more than Carey can stop writing about his. Is the selfish, angry Butcher a reflection of Carey? We should be wary of what the character calls 'the complete certainty of total mediocrities', or at least reserve judgment until the release of the novel his former wife is writing. Working title: Mrs Jekyll.