Knopf Doubleday: 5/6/2014
Hardcover, 384 pages
Peter Heller, the celebrated author of the breakout best seller The Dog Stars, returns with an achingly beautiful, wildly suspenseful second novel about an artist trying to outrun his past.
Jim Stegner has seen his share of violence and loss. Years ago he shot a man in a bar. His marriage disintegrated. He grieved the one thing he loved. In the wake of tragedy, Jim, a well-known expressionist painter, abandoned the art scene of Santa Fe to start fresh in the valleys of rural Colorado. Now he spends his days painting and fly-fishing, trying to find a way to live with the dark impulses that sometimes overtake him. He works with a lovely model. His paintings fetch excellent prices. But one afternoon, on a dirt road, Jim comes across a man beating a small horse, and a brutal encounter rips his quiet life wide open. Fleeing Colorado, chased by men set on retribution, Jim returns to New Mexico, tormented by his own relentless conscience.A stunning, savage novel of art and violence, love and grief, The Painter is the story of a man who longs to transcend the shadows in his heart, a man intent on using the losses he has suffered to create a meaningful life.
In The Painter, a very highly recommended novel by Peter Heller the main character, Jim Stegner, is an enigma. He is a highly successful artist, a painter, who needs his art for personal therapy as much as for personal expression. Jim is a grieving father, an avid fly fisherman, a lover of women, animals, and nature. He is a recovering alcoholic, and has failed at both his marriages. He is also a felon who has served time for his inability to control his temper. Sometimes, when Jim encounters something that just isn't right, he is prone to falling into a “a red blindness” of uncontrollable rage.
Jim is out of prison and his beloved daughter is dead. Jim is painting, trying to overcome his pain and the guilt he feels, thinking he could have prevented it. He paints. He fly fishes. He tries to forget or find some peace/redemption in his creativity while knowing he also harbors a darker side. "I know. I stand out here now in the wind watching the clouds mass and I know. That Steve in his greed is feeding me and will kill my art if I let him. That my daughter died for nothing. That I better go fishing before my thoughts start to spiral. "(Location 362)
When Jim is heading out to fish he encounters a cruel man who beats a scared horse nearly to dead.
"She’s frozen in a paralysis of terror. When I touch her shoulder the quiver and tremor spread outward from the sweatsoaked hide, spread up and back like something seismic. She flinches away from my hand but doesn’t step. As if her hooves, small hooves, shiny and black, newly shod, are glued to the dirt. The lead rope hanging from her halter. I almost cannot contain—the rage and the tenderness together like a boiling weather front. I stand beside her and breathe. The two of us just stand there." (Location 474)
Jim punches the man and saves the horse, but this one act sets into motion a whole string of events with stakes that escalate with every page.
"I think of Guernica, the painting. The knife in the horse. A story I read once by one of the Russians, maybe Chekhov, a man beating a horse. How seeing it happen is so much worse. A big man wreaking his anger on a tied horse who cannot even beg."(Location 537)
Jim is a tortured character, but a complete person. There is a duality to his personality that is captured perfectly. Anyone with an artistic bent will understand and empathize with him. Jim is also an avid fly fisherman and outdoorsman which encompasses a whole different sphere of personalities. I appreciate how Heller manages to capture one man, one imperfect man, with all his flaws, foibles, and gifts, and presents him, flaws and all, to us in a complicated package and then allows us to slowly unwrap and expose the real man.
The Painter works on several levels. It is a character study, a novel of suspense, the story of a man dealing with his overwhelming grief, a suffering artist trying to paint his way through his emotions, and a man trying to sabotage his life while simultaneously trying to save himself.
I admire Heller's writing style. He perfectly captures a person's inner thoughts, inner dialogue as Jim assesses the situations and people he is thrust into contact with during this turbulent time. For example:
"Steady hazel eyes, a smile. A man you could trust. To lock you up forever." (Location 1191) and "I say blurred, because it was hard to see him sharply through the cloud of good cheer he brought with him the way Pig-Pen brings his dust." (Location 2625)
It's not always an easy novel to read. It has language and there is some violence and adult situations, You will find yourself wanting Jim to find another way to handle things. But you are also going to appreciate reading about his creative process and what he is thinking, what inspires him, as he paints.
It is also a novel that captures the setting equally well.
Heller has written another brilliant novel.
Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday for review purposes.