If it’s possible to paint in words alone—to create a wildly colorful story of grief in sentences layered like one of van Gogh’s swirling night scenes—Colorado author Peter Heller accomplishes it in his second novel, The Painter, narrated by artist Jim Stegner. A fly fisherman with a violent streak, Stegner is determined to overcome his tragic past, but he can’t seem to avoid causing more pain for himself and others.
When Stegner moves from Taos, N.M., to an off-the-grid cabin tucked into the mountains near Paonia, Colo., he finally finds himself in a landscape he considers “a good place … to make a field of peace, to gather and breathe.” But not long after he’s settled in, his dark side resurfaces, and he kills a man in an unpremeditated act. Instead of spending his days as he had hoped—painting canvases and fly-fishing as the sun dips below the horizon—Stegner packs up and leaves Colorado to pursue a commission in Santa Fe, N.M., hoping to outrun his guilt.
The murdered man’s brother, burning with the desire for revenge, and an eclectic host of law-enforcement officials stay hot on the artist’s heels, and even as he tries to dodge the tragedy and violence that follows in his wake—including the deaths of his parents and the murder of his daughter by a drug-buyer—he can’t evade it. “That engine. Grief is an engine. Feels like that,” muses Stegner. “It does not fade, what they say, with time. Sometime it accelerates. I was accelerating. I could feel it, the g-force pressing my chest.”
Even though Stegner’s interior conflict adds depth to the story, the plot lulls at times when the narrator’s thoughts alone fill the page. However, Heller—an award-winning adventure writer—masterfully creates enough suspense to hold the tension taut in this book’s more-action-packed moments, which include shootouts, car chases, a barn-burning and an unexpected final scene.
Heller’s deep-feeling narrator tells his story in a candid, casual voice that ultimately extracts sympathy from the reader. With an ending that’s surprising and fresh, The Painter will leave the reader wondering what it takes to salvage something artful from a painful past.
This story originally appeared in High Country News.
The Painter: A Novel
By Peter Heller
Alfred A. Knopf
384 pages, $24.95