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.
Editors Select, May 2014 - I absolutely loved his debut The Dog Stars – I’ve recommended it to just about every reader and listener I know - so I was very excited to see Peter Heller’s name among this spring’s new releases. Full disclosure: The Painter is not The Dog Stars in subject matter – but if you liked the latter for the author’s unique rhythmic prose, and interesting, complex characters, you’ll thoroughly enjoy this new book. The Painter is the story of Jim Stegner, a famous, middle aged painter who has settled down into a quiet, sober life of painting and fishing following a rather dark past (which includes the death of his teenage daughter and a brief stint in prison for an attempted murder). But an encounter with a dangerous stranger soon sets him on a fateful course that has him creating new demons faster than he can battle his old ones. An emotional, at times harrowing tale of love, loss, guilt, and redemption, The Painter is a brilliant sophomore effort from a great literary author (who I think I can now officially call one of my favorites!) Sam, Audible Editor
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First off, I need to say that Heller's previous book, The Dog Stars, is in my all-time favorites list. I listened to it three times.
I had hoped I would enjoy The Painter similarly. This book has some of the characteristics that I loved in the previous book. It has the very excellent Mark Deakins as the narrator. It has the first person narration by the protagonist and the similar stream of consciousness thoughts. At first, I worried that I was listening to the same character as in the other book. The similarities were scary--the loner male, the abject grief, the love of nature--but soon I realized that Jim Stegner was a very different character. Good, and that is what I was hoping for, right?
Yes and no. Jim is a very different bird, indeed. Some of his personality traits did not ring true or seem to be credible. Heller portrays a man who has what could be referred to as psychopathic tendencies, yet he is a nature loving, animal protecting, introspective man. This just doesn't ring true.
Jim is also incredibly self-centered to an extent that I found hard to swallow. Yet he attracts the very best in women, selfless women who also think only of him and expect nothing in return from him. Is the mere presence of an up and coming artist and fly fisherman enough for them?
There were parts of the book that were riveting and other parts that seemed to drag a bit. I think a little too much introspection perhaps. But the clincher for me was the egregious crimes he committed and got away with and how law enforcement became almost complicit with him. Was the author thinking that if a person is evil and disgusting enough, he can be offed with no consequences? Every once in a while, the author gave Jim a tiny bit of conscience, which changed his behavior not a whit. Were we to think more of him because now and then he acknowledged the seriousness of what he had done?
I realize that everyone does not have my values, and it would be boring to read only about good people. However, for me, Jim Stegner had no redeeming qualities that would excuse his failings. I came away from this novel confused and perplexed, feeling little satisfaction.
Peter Heller refined his craft as a longtime contributor to NPR, and a contributing editor at Outside Magazine, Men’s Journal, and National Geographic Adventure. Recalling his adventures from the waters of Eastern Tibet’s Tsangpo River, the guarded dolphin-killing cove in Taiji, to Catching the Perfect Wave in Mexico, Heller wrote about his extreme expedition-like adventures. In 2012, he distinguished himself as a writer that was also an artist when he took readers with him on an adventure into the post-apocalyptic world of The Dog Stars; a violent world of devastating loneliness and danger. With a style that was at times achingly beautiful, Heller created hope from the desolation, gave a pine-bore elegance, and a lumbering old dog dignity. It was magical and distinctive, and readers all noted Heller's style.
From the first paragraph of The Painter, (a great opening sentence: “I never imagined I would shoot a man. Or be a father. Or live so far from the sea.”) I knew this was the magnificence of Peter Heller. The abbreviated snub-nosed blocks of interior monologue stacked between lyrical runs of poetic prose; the writing is again, ruminative and seductive, nearly an organic spiritual experience similar to that of being away from everything but yourself and nature. Heller is also a poet, and this almost reads like a painting of words you could just get lost in, but there is an intense, wild old west flavored story, and a life and death chase that crosses the Rocky Mountains.
Another zen-fly fisherman...Jim Stegner is a bad-boy impressionist artist that finds fame and fortune in the Southwestern art culture. He is a recovering alcoholic, compulsive gambler, and a womanizer, with a hair-trigger temper and poor life management skills. If *Stegner* screams out at you, Heller intentionally gave the character the name, as an homage to favorite authors, which include Hemingway, Conrad, and McCarthy. Though the authors don't appear in the story, their specters are everywhere, influencing the themes and plots.
Heller begins the story at a point where Jim has fled Taos and located himself in a small Colorado town with plenty of scenery, and rivers for trout fishing. As Jim reflects on the violence and grief that has brought him to this new place, we learn that Jim served a prison sentence for shooting a man in a bar -- the man escaped being convicted of raping a young girl and was talking about Jim's own daughter -- so, yeah...it was wrong, but Jim feels he was doing the town a favor. We also learn that Jim's 15 yr. old daughter was killed in a knife fight over drugs, and he feels he failed her by not being there when she needed him. His wife leaves him, a string of violent outbursts plague him, and his grief becomes overwhelming, sending this "smoldering volcano" off to Colorado where he tries to escape into his painting and drown in his fly-fishing. Trouble quickly finds Jim in Colorado. En route to the river, he comes across a gruff man, Dellwood Siminoe, beating a terrified horse and jumps in to defend the horse. Dellwood is a ruthless lump of a man involved in several illegal rackets, and the two cross paths again. This time Dellwood is killed and the local lawmen suspect Jim -- so does Dellwood's equally ruthless brother Grant and his buddy Jason who swear revenge for the deadman. In the following chase, the landscape becomes a vivid character, the descriptions as visual as a painted canvas: "The creek was low, showing its bones, the fallen spruce propped high on the rocks like a wreck, the little rapids now shallow, the pools cold again and slate blue. The wooded canyon had gone to deep shadow but the pink rimrock high up was brilliant with long evening light and the sky was that hard enamel blue. When a gust blew downstream the willows along the gravel bars loosed their pale yellow leaves to the stones and the water.
I don't think it was perfect. I had a hard time getting into the book -- when Jim is seeking comfort in a model's "grapefruit sized" bosoms, and painting himself "Drowning in a Sea of Women" Jim seemed more on par with Dellwood. (Heller's depiction of the romantic relationship in Dog Stars was a similar speed bump for me -- his descriptions of romance seem awkward.) And, a vigilante murderer is still a murderer...which is exactly how Heller wanted me to perceive Jim. The strong sense of emotions that propel Jim recklessly through his guilt-ridden life are in balance with the depth of his vulnerability. The thought that his self-induced suffering is more punishing than if he were caught and incarcerated is always on your mind, feeding your compassion for Jim. .
At the heart of the novel is a haunted man and his earnest desire for absolution, redemption, and purpose. Through story and the symbols incorporated in the paintings, (the omnipresent black crows that symbolize death) Heller makes the invisible visible, opens the soul of this tormented man to the reader, and gives us a likeable anti-hero we come to know and cheer for. This is a book you could dwell in, stroll through and find something different each time.