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The Painter: A novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 6, 2014
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An Amazon Best Book of the Month, May 2014: Following up on the success of The Dog Stars, his post-apocalyptic literary debut of 2012, Peter Heller now pivots in a slightly different direction. The Painter is a contemporary Western about a 45-year-old artist and fly fisherman named Jim Stegner. Having lost two wives to divorce and his only daughter to violence, Stegner has felt the sting of life; but he’s also capable of experiencing great beauty, whether through his art, his relationships, or while out casting on a river. Heller skillfully balances these two sides of his protagonist, painting a portrait of a man whose dark edge can explode in unexpected ways (the first line of The Painter is "I never imagined I would shoot a man)." As the action moves forward, Heller proves adept at describing both peace and violence, and his second novel establishes him firmly in the tradition of writers like Kent Haruf, Thomas McGuane, and Cormac McCarthy. --Chris Schluep
*Starred Review* Heller’s first novel, The Dog Stars (2012), a muscularly literary postapocalyptic tale, became a blazing best-seller. Here he takes the frenetic energy down a notch without diminishing suspense as he portrays an artist with “the heart of a killer.” Though renowned and well off, with a top gallery in Santa Fe, painter Jim Stegner is haunted by grief and guilt. He served time for shooting a dangerous man who made lewd remarks about Jim’s blossoming daughter, who later died under circumstances he can’t bear to think about. Seeking peace in the glories of land and sky and the Zen of fly-fishing, Jim has just settled into a small house in the Colorado wilderness, where he’s painting with great intensity, inspired by the best model he’s ever had, smart, tough Sophia. Then he encounters a man brutally beating a horse. Jim ends up murdering this notoriously violent, much-feared hunting outfitter, putting an abrupt end to his quest for serenity. As Jim duels with the police and the dead man’s kin, he keeps painting, creating provoking, elegiac, and jubilant works fueled by anguish and love. Heller’s writing is sure-footed and rip-roaring, star-bright and laced with “dark yearning,” coalescing in an ever-escalating, ravishing, grandly engrossing and satisfying tale of righteousness and revenge, artistic fervor and moral ambiguity. --Donna Seaman
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Where The Dog Stars established Heller as a writer with a consistent, wickedly humorous voice, a formidable scene setter, and writer with philosophical underpinnings, this second novel shows those strengths fraying a bit. He’s adopting a voice here that isn’t always his own; he toys with the sentence structures of Hemingway and Raymond Carver, and the effect is a bit clumsy. However in the book’s second half he returns to vestiges of his first novel’s voice, and this is where his story becomes compelling.
Heller’s protagonist, Jim Stegner, is an unschooled but talented painter who struggles with drink, with womanizing, and with his temper. These traits have led him to be a killer, although Heller goes to great pains to let us know these acts are not premeditated. They’ve also, in accordance with these United States’ innate streak of violence, allowed him to be a cult figure - a talent around whom one feels it necessary to walk on eggshells. (For what it’s worth, this trait is to this reader and social observer the cause of a hollowness within the national psyche.) Stegner wants atonement for his acts, but he doesn’t know how to go about that. So Heller must allow Stegner to be the subject of retributive violence, which allows the painter, as might happen to a pre-adolescent child, to have atonement forced on him. Stegner is as a person and as a literary creation, a mess. Perhaps Heller intends him to be a faux Hemingway: hard drinking, bullying and a crybaby when those tables are turned on him. Stegner doesn’t seem to have the backbone about which an anti-hero’s fatal flaws can be built, though; he’s too much at the whims of fate for that. Heller tries to create philosophical depth for Stegner, but these attempts ring hollow. What he has created in Stegner, however, is a depiction of an instinctive artist, something the American psyche always seeks: talent and success untrammeled by subjecting that psyche to training and the lessons of culture and history. That Stegner is, in the end, a talented but pitiful figure, should tell the reader something very important: instinct that refuses at least a small measure of acculturation eventually become debased.
That I can write all these things about Heller - and Stegner - speaks to the talent that still lies untapped in Heller, who may yet become a great voice in American literature.
My rating: 15 of 20 stars
-Daniel J. Rice, author of THIS SIDE OF A WILDERNESS, and THE UNPEOPLED SEASON
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Skip it and read something else.