CBR15Bingo: “You are here”
The Painter (2015) by Peter Heller is one of the books I specifically searched out for Cannonball Bingo. Looking for local books, I was doing google searches for the “best books that take place in Colorado” and saw The Painter. I had read The Dog Stars by Heller ten years ago and was impressed, so I was open to reading another book by him. In addition, Heller lives in Denver and the book takes place (at least partly) in the mountains of Colorado, which works perfectly for my Bingo square. (I also really liked the cover, and the author is, apparently, a friend of a friend.)
The protagonist and namesake of this book is Jim Stegner, a successful painter, but also something of a loner. The beginning of the book begins when a man threatens his daughter, and Stegner shoots him. The man does not die, but Stegner spends time in prison. After his stint in prison and substantially more personal tragedy, Stegner finds himself in a small town in the Colorado mountains, Paonia. Here, he can stay sober, paint, and fish as he deals with his grief.
But as Stegner heads up to another fishing spot, he comes across a man beating a small mare–almost to death. He doesn’t even think before throwing himself out of the car and attacking the man. It turns out that the man is named Dell, someone who is known in the area for abusing his animals and poaching. Dell is certainly a horrible person, but it’s perhaps Stegner’s history that makes him react irrationally the next time he sees him.
And all of a sudden, the police are asking Jim questions and Dell’s family are coming after him with fury. Stegner is wrestling with his own feelings that are often overwhelming. He drives to Santa Fe–where his art dealer is and where his work is shown–because he has been commissioned to paint a portrait of two little girls. Trouble follows him there as well, but between all of this chaos is the peace that Jim feels when he is fishing or painting.
I generally enjoyed this book, although I think I would rank The Dog Stars a little higher. At its best, Heller’s writing reminds me of Cormac McCarthy. The descriptions of painting and fishing almost made me want to try both. Heller was very good at describing landscapes and getting the feel of a place. There were also a number of very tense scenes, and I never quite knew what was going to happen next.
However, I was a little disappointed in the women in the book. They didn’t feel authentic to me, and I thought Jim’s relationships with them felt more fantastical than real. This includes Jim’s daughter. We don’t see much of her, but she seemed to be both a teenager and an old, wise woman. In addition, I was a little worried when I read the first scene in the book. When Jim shot the man at the bar, I thought Heller was trying awfully hard to help us forgive him. The victim was a caricature of evil: a man who had gotten away with raping a young girl and was spouting threats about Jim’s daughter. Again, it didn’t feel quite authentic.
Although I had a couple problems while reading this one, I genuinely liked it. I saw that Heller has a new book out called The Last Ranger that looks like something I could get into. I think I’ll be reading that one at some point, too.