Like The Dog Stars, which I adored, this book isn’t exactly what I expected. Heller tells the story of Jim Stegner, an artist whose star has been rising for years, but who can’t seem to shake the darkness around him. Coming from working class roots, Stegner came to painting in his twenties and he has had a well-earned reputation as a bit of a wild card—getting into fights, not suffering the fools of the art world graciously, and all that. As the novel opens, Stegner is fly fishing and painting in Colorado, seeking a sort of peace after a rough series of events that include the death of his teenage daughter and his shooting a man in a Santa Fe bar.
However, like many a protagonist before him, Stegner can’t quite seem to stay out of trouble. He witnesses a man brutally beating a horse and in a matter of moments, the man is bleeding on the ground and Stegner is in possession of a horse. This small moment of intervention sets up a series of events that both puts Stegner’s life in danger and the lives of the people he has come to care about.
Heller writes about both nature and brutality in vivid, almost beautiful, ways and Stegner is a realistic combination of good intentions, poor impulse control, and artistic genius—alternating between lack of insight into his own actions and moments of clarity. Much like in The Dog Stars, this story ends with a great deal of ambiguity—which may drive some readers nuts but I felt worked well.