by Peter Heller
Knopf; May 6
Hardcover; 384 pages
Source: Received from publisher for review
In the wake of his daughter’s tragic death and his subsequent divorce, famous expressionist painter Jim Stegner moves to rural Colorado. He enjoys the solitude, spending his days fly fishing and painting a beautiful young model named Sofia.
However, his peaceful life is turned upside down when he witnesses a man beating a little horse. Jim has a history of violence, having spent time in jail for shooting a man in a bar years before, and he must fight to overcome his rage against the man for harming the animal. A few days later, when he encounters the man again, Jim fails to reign in his anger, and he kills the man.
It transpires that the man he killed, Dell, was a member of a dangerous gang, and Jim must flee Dell’s friends and the police as he becomes a person of interest in Dell’s death. What follows is a mad dash through the rangeland to Santa Fe, where Jim’s art is sold, and where he has promised to do a commissioned painting.
This was an unusual read for me. I tend not to read books that contain violence because shoot ‘em ups just don’t interest me, in books or in film, but I can’t resist books about art and the human psyche. Now, there’s a lot of violence in this book: fighting, shooting, car chases, and murder. But I really liked it because it’s about a lot MORE than just the violence. It’s about a man struggling to overcome his irrational guilt over his daughter’s death. It’s about darkness, grief, love, inspiration, and art.
I really enjoyed this novel and thought Heller did an excellent job portraying Jim’s emotional state and motivations. I also really loved his writing about art. See this incredible description of Jim’s reaction to Picasso’s “Nude Woman in a Red Armchair:”
“As soon as I caught sight of that pale form, the very realistic length of her limbs, her shadowed armpit, the closed but beautiful eyes, I was aroused. A much different arousal — dark, tinged with what? Guilt maybe. At the voyeurism of studying this woman who could not know that I was watching. At the shame of being stiumulated by a body that might be a corpse. It was a dark and groaning and maybe violent feeling, violent in the sense of being drawn, exquisitely, toward death and what it does to all things in its proximity. The way it both chills and sanctifies them. The way death is both near and infinitely remote, the way it freezes and somehow kindles the heat of something grotesque and maybe irresistible and sexy, which is life at its most desperate. Phew. What I realized standing there, is that this dark yearning is what happens when we idealize anything: the form of a woman, a landscape, a spiritual impulse. We move it closer to the realm of the dead, if not outright kill it. The living joyful exuberant woman becomes statue marble and dead, or pornagraphic and equally dead. The spiritual impulse becomes religion. And dead. To my mind.”
Although I mostly enjoyed this novel overall and thought Heller developed Jim’s character really well, some of the supporting characters fell a bit flat. As Jim’s relationship with Sofia, his model, progresses, I wished her character had been better drawn. (I also had to roll my eyes a little at the artist sleeping with his huge-chested, much younger model.) I just couldn’t see why, apart from being a plot device, their relationship developed the way it did. I thought their relationship could have been written better to feel more true.
Overall, I really enjoyed this novel. I loved the way Heller evokes the Colorado landscape and the way this novel played like a movie in my head. It’s a Blockbuster of a book, but you know, with intelligent things to say. The Painter is a great portrayal of loss, trying to put oneself back together again, and the tension between darkness and art.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.