The Painter by Peter Heller, the second novel by the author of the highly acclaimed debut novel The Dog Stars, was the library's adult book discussion selection for November.
Heller is an experienced travel and adventure writer who tackled fiction for the first time four years ago. His years spent writing about the outdoors surely show in this beautifully written new novel: his evocations of the landscapes of New Mexico and Colorado shimmer.
The focus of the story is one artist's attempts to come to grips with his darker side, his sudden and seemingly unavoidable urges toward violence when sufficiently triggered. What renders renowned painter Jim Stegner sympathetic is that what sets him off would set us off too: lewd comments about his teenaged daughter, a man's cruelty to a terrified horse. Unfortunately, Jim's reactions to these offenses tend toward the lethal; if only he could content himself with a good punch.
The novel opens with Jim having served time for one such incident and then having fled New Mexico for Colorado, to heal and resume his painting. But as one might expect with such a volatile man, Jim's new tranquility is short-lived. A second incident quickly ensues.
The novel narrates the second episode and its aftermath, taking the reader on a suspenseful journey through police investigations, games of cat and mouse with vengeful men, and Jim's increasingly successful and lucrative art life. We also get romance and plenty of fly-fishing, Jim's outlet and obsession, each fishing scene beautifully described. Heller writes his villains well too.
The novel has an interior life as well: Heller describes his protagonist's frequent musings down memory lane, his many old and new relationships, and his nearly continuous, if not entirely plausible, grappling with his demons.
Where the book let me down (and at times made me mad) was in its depictions of its female characters, who are "fleshed out" rather too much: we're told over and over of their beauty, their body parts, their sex appeal, assets they wield like the men wield their fishing rods and guns. Heller's male characters are never objectified this way. One reviewer called this book "a novel for manly men" and "a well-landed punch on the side of rugged masculinity." If you ask me, we've catered to that crowd long enough.
~Ann, Adult Services