Passion and rage drive Jim Stegner, an artist who never does anything halfway in Peter Heller’s new novel. A recovered alcoholic, Jim paints huge canvases in a frenzy of inspiration. Characterized by bold brushstrokes and bright colors, his primitives fetch thousands in a gallery in Santa Fe. He chills out by wading into Rocky Mountain waters with his rod and reel, fishing with the same passion.
As for the rage — well. Years ago, he did jail time for shooting a guy in a bar.
“You are a planet and you have a magnetic resonance,” a lover tells him. “You have an atmosphere and a hot core. ... You have seasons and tides and one or two moons who will circle you for life.”
At the moment, Stegner’s in retreat from all the accidents and confusion in his life — some busted marriages and the death of his only daughter, who was happiest when he took her out fishing. He’s painting again, with a new model.
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Like his narrator, Heller — also the author of the novel The Dog Stars, named one of the best books of 2012 by Publisher’s Weekly, Amazon and Atlantic Monthly— goes full speed ahead in The Painter. He catapults Stegner into attack mode in the first chapter, setting a pace that never lets up. Infuriated by a man he catches beating a horse, Stegner doubles back on the burly local by night. He tells himself he’s just fishing, but he isn’t.
“Time past and time present,” Stegner tells us, “Whatever kind of time ruled the earth receded into the night shadows. I cast and cast and walked carefully upstream...” where, as it turns out, the brute has a fishing camp. He and his pals are getting drunk and talking dirty sex. Stegner advances, “throwing into the fast funnels between rocks, the boulders bleached by the moon and marking the course of the creek upstream the way a scattered herd of humped and silent beasts might mark a twisting trail... I followed them.”
This isn’t just about the trout, which he often hooks and then sets free. He tangles with his nemesis in shallow waters and bashes his head in.
Of course there will be police. And in these parts, even the worst people have families. Although authorities agree the horse-beater was a thug operating outside the law, their job is to make sure justice is done, and they know Stegner killed him. The dead man’s family wants revenge. Wherever the painter goes, whatever he does, he’ll be followed. He knows he did the right thing — and yet he still feels guilty.
Meanwhile, his career takes off. The paintings get better and better, and his prices soar. Sofia, his new model, moves in with him, signaling a new romance, and his dealer wants him in Santa Fe to paint the children of a wealthy collector. He goes, even though he knows it’s risky.
With all the elements in place, Heller pulls the reader along at tremendous speeds, intercutting action and amazing descriptions of Stegner as he paints. The painter tries to describe the artistic process: “The reason people are so moved by art and why artists take it all so seriously is that if they are real and true they come to the painting with everything they know and feel and love, and all the things they don’t know, and some of the things they hope, and they are honest about them all and put them on the canvas... What more really can be at stake except life itself, which is why maybe artists are always equating the two and driving everybody crazy by insisting that art is life.”
Heller, who has published several books about his adventures in the physical world — including Kook, about surfing and Hell or High Water, about kayaking Tibet’s dangerous Tsangpo River — draws Stegner’s surroundings in powerful, high-energy prose as, once again, he goes out with his rod and reel: “Mid-October on the Sulphur may be the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. 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... When a gust blew downstream the willows along the gravel bars loosed their pale yellow leaves to the stones and the water...”
Peaceful. Until it isn’t. This contrast between serene nature and extreme action made The Dog Stars such a sensation. Heller uses it again well in The Painter, although not all of his readers will be quite as passionate about trout fishing.
Kit Reed is a writer in New York and a Shirley Jackson Award nominee for 2014.