THE PAINTER is one of those books that defies quick or easy categorization. There are elements of literary fiction as well as the romance and thriller genres that run through it, and not always in a straight line. Author Peter Heller, who garnered critical and commercial acclaim with his debut novel, THE DOG STARS, eschews the doomsday tone of that work in his latest for a story that is very much in the immediate here and now.
The book introduces us to a complex and extremely troubled character named Jim Stegner, who fled the artiste scene in Santa Fe, New Mexico, years ago after experiencing the cascading effect of a number of personal tragedies. After settling in rural Colorado, Stegner’s popularity only increases, as he becomes an artist-in-exile of sorts, with collectors snatching up his paintings as fast as he can paint them and ship them to a Santa Fe gallery, the owner of which functions as a sort of manager and agent for him. Painting, however, is not Stegner’s only avocation; he loves fishing as well and is given to stopping at various times during the day to cast a line. Fishing inspires more painting, with Stegner given more to impulsive flights of fancy than to slow and deliberate brushwork.
"Author Peter Heller, who garnered critical and commercial acclaim with his debut novel, THE DOG STARS, eschews the doomsday tone of that work in his latest for a story that is very much in the immediate here and now."
There is also a dark side to Stegner. He has had some brushes with law enforcement, even to the extent of doing time in prison, though he comes off as an extremely sympathetic character (if occasionally excessive and impulsive), even in his baser interactions. A kind of double-edged mystique has arisen around him as a result.
While beginning yet another fishing sojourn, Stegner comes across a man cruelly beating a pony. He quickly interjects himself into the situation, saving the animal but setting up the beginning of a chain reaction that has him playing a game of cat and mouse with not entirely unsympathetic law enforcement personnel. The more immediate problem for Stegner, though, is a loosely related family group of poachers and outlaws who regard a hand raised against one as an offense against all. His actions put himself and his friends --- as well as a newly acquired lover --- into significant danger.
Stegner hopes to avoid further trouble to the extent that might be possible by returning to Santa Fe, ostensibly to paint a custom portrait for a (very significant) hire. He only succeeds in bringing danger with him, and...something else. Pursued by a dogged hunter with a thirst for revenge, Stegner turns the tables in ways both expected and unexpected, not only on a cold and vengeful relative who is seemingly omnipresent, but also on a new set of law enforcement officials. His paintings take a whole new turn as well. Stegner becomes increasingly prolific, beginning a dark and haunting series of paintings that takes him places he never would have expected. The question, though, is whether or not he wants to go there, and how far he wants to go. The paintings all but confess what he has done. Meanwhile, there is a dark presence that watches him, brooding and waiting. But for what?
Stegner is a somewhat frustrating character to get a handle on and is all the more real for it. His actions are occasionally a puzzle --- if you pause while reading and wonder, “Why did he do that?” you won’t be alone --- but it’s not difficult to feel sympathy for him. As he notes at one point, he is a good man. But is he good? Or is it the other way around? And, ultimately, does that really make a difference? That is but one question THE PAINTER raises that will haunt you long after the tale is told.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on June 20, 2014
- Publication Date: March 3, 2015
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 384 pages
- Publisher: Vintage
- ISBN-10: 0804170150
- ISBN-13: 9780804170154