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The BookBrowse Review

Published May 21, 2014

ISSN: 1930-0018

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The Painter
The Painter
by Peter Heller

Hardcover (6 May 2014), 384 pages.
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN-13: 9780385352093
BookBrowse:
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Peter Heller, the celebrated author of the breakout best seller The Dog Stars, returns with an achingly beautiful, wildly suspenseful second novel about an artist trying to outrun his past.

Jim Stegner has seen his share of violence and loss. Years ago he shot a man in a bar. His marriage disintegrated. He grieved the one thing he loved. In the wake of tragedy, Jim, a well-known expressionist painter, abandoned the art scene of Santa Fe to start fresh in the valleys of rural Colorado. Now he spends his days painting and fly-fishing, trying to find a way to live with the dark impulses that sometimes overtake him. He works with a lovely model. His paintings fetch excellent prices. But one afternoon, on a dirt road, Jim comes across a man beating a small horse, and a brutal encounter rips his quiet life wide open. Fleeing Colorado, chased by men set on retribution, Jim returns to New Mexico, tormented by his own relentless conscience.

A stunning, savage novel of art and violence, love and grief, The Painter is the story of a man who longs to transcend the shadows in his heart, a man intent on using the losses he has suffered to create a meaningful life.

BOOK ONE
Mayhem
OIL ON LINEN
40 x 50 INCHES
COLLECTION OF THE ARTIST

I never imagined I would shoot a man. Or be a father. Or live so far from the sea.

As a child, you imagine your life sometimes, how it will be.

I never thought I would be a painter. That I might make a world and walk into it and forget myself. That art would be something I would not have any way of not doing.

My own father was a logger, very gentle, who never fought with anyone.

I could not have imagined that my daughter would be beautiful and strong like my mother. Whom she would never meet. Or that one afternoon at the Boxcar in Taos I would be drinking Jim Beam with a beer back and Lauder Simms would be at the next stool nursing a vodka tonic, probably his fourth or fifth, slurping the drink in a way that made ants run over my neck, his wet eyes glancing over again and again. The fucker who had skated on a certain conviction for raping a twelve year old girl in his movie theater downtown, looking at me now, saying,

"Jim, your daughter is coming up nice, I like seeing her down at the theater."

"Come again?"

"Long legged like her mom, I mean not too skinny."

"What?"

"I don't mean too skinny, Jim. I mean just—" His leer, lips wet with tonic. "She's real interested in movies. Everything movies. I'm gonna train her up to be my little projectionist—"

I never imagined something like that could be reflex, without thought: pulling out the .41 magnum, raising it to the man half turned on the stool, pulling the trigger. Point blank. The concussion inside the windowless room. Or how everything explodes like the inside of a dream and how Johnny, my friend, came lunging over the bar, over my arm, to keep me from pulling the trigger again. Who saved my life in a sense because the man who should have died never did. How the shot echoed for hours inside the bar, inside my head. Echoed for years.

I painted that moment, the explosion of colors, the faces.

How regret is corrosive, but one of the things it does not touch is that afternoon, not ever.



CHAPTER ONE
 
I

An Ocean of Women

OIL ON CANVAS

52 x 48 INCHES

My house is three miles south of town. There are forty acres of wheatgrass and sage, a ditch with a hedgerow of cottonwoods and willows, a small pond with a dock. The back fence gives on to the West Elk Mountains. Right there. They are rugged and they rise up just past the back of my place, from sage into juniper woods, then oak brush, then steep slopes of black timber, spruce and fir, and outcrops of rock and swaths of aspen clinging to the shoulders of the ridges. If I walk a few miles south, up around the flank of Mount Lamborn, I am in the Wilderness, which runs all the way to the Curecanti above Gunnison, and across to Crested Butte.

From the little ramada I look south to all those mountains and east to the massif of Mount Gunnison. All rock and timber now in August. There's snow up there all but a few months a year. They tell me that some years the snow never vanishes. I'd like to see that.

If I step out in front of the small house and look west it is softer and drier that direction: the gently stepping uplift of Black Mesa where the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River cuts through; other desert mesas; the Uncompahgre Plateau out beyond it all, hazy and blue.

This is my new home. It's kind of overwhelming how beautiful. And little Paonia, funny name for a village out here, some old misspelling of Peony. Nestled down in all this high rough country like a train set. The North Fork of the Gunnison runs through it, a winding of giant leafy cottonwoods and orchards, farms, vineyards. A good place I guess to make a field of peace, to gather and breathe.

Thing is I don't feel like just breathing.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from The Painter by Peter Heller. Copyright © 2014 by Peter Heller. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. The Painter opens several years before the rest of the narrative, in the bar where Jim fired the shot that changed the course of his life. Why do you think the author chose to open on this moment? How did it color your reading experience? Your perception of Jim?

  2. An Ocean of Women is a painting born out of a comment made by Irmina. What was your interpretation of this painting? How does it relate to Jim's treatment of women? Discuss Jim's relationships with the following characters: Irmina, Sofia, Celia, Cristine. What similarities, if any, exist in how he treats each of these women? What does he admire about the women?

  3. Discuss Jim's relationship with Sofia. Why do you think he hesitates before initiating a physical relationship with her? In what ways is she a foil for his character?

  4. The first-person narrative of The Painter allows for a slow reveal of information about Jim and his past. How did this piecemeal revelation add tension to the discussion of Alce's death? How did it help to create a more sympathetic character?

  5. Expressionism, as an artistic movement, is characterized by a preference for subjectivity over realism. Why do you think the author chooses to have Jim paint in this style? How do the concepts of realism versus subjectivity factor into the larger narrative concerns of The Painter?

  6. In the beginning of the novel, Bob advises Jim to "be good." These words are echoed throughout the novel, particularly as Jim wrestles with his self-image in the face of his increasingly violent behavior. Discuss the difference between being good and goodness as described by Jim on page 303. Is Jim a "good" person? What characters, if any, are "good" or display innate "goodness"?

  7. On page 74, Jim describes how he "disappear[s]" in awe when viewing certain paintings and certain scenes of nature. Discuss the choice of wording. How do both art and nature provide a means of escapism for Jim throughout the novel?

  8. Explore Jim's relationship with Irmina. How does he rely on her for emotional support throughout the novel? How does she provide guidance for him?

  9. Jim is a mostly self-taught painter. Discuss the moment when he realized that he wanted to paint. How did his experiences in childhood and adolescence influence his decision?

  10. Trace the events that cause Jim's violent side to emerge throughout the novel. What, if anything, do these events have in common?

  11. Discuss the significance of the painting of the horse and crow. Why do you think the painting has "changed" in his absence after he assaults Celia's ex-boyfriend? (page 216)

  12. Jim paints for himself, but also needs to paint as a means of economic stability. By the end of the novel, do you think he is more accepting of the relationship between creator and consumer, or do the events in Santa Fe harden him toward the interaction?

  13. Discuss the "flash flood" as described on pages 289 to 292. Explore its symbolism in the narrative and the development of Jim as a character. Why do you think he signaled Jason? Was it an instinctual or merciful act?

  14. Jim's relationship with his art dealer, Steve, is fraught with tension. How did you view their relationship? Is it one of mutual respect? Of economic necessity? Do you think Steve is intimidated by Jim's violent past?

  15. When Jim goes to Santa Fe, he finds himself in the center of a media maelstrom, carefully constructed by Steve. Discuss Jim's reaction to becoming a public figure. Why do you think he is most chagrined by the "blogger?"(page 320)

  16. How does Jim's guilt over his actions—both over Alce and his violent behavior—manifest throughout the novel? How does he take to the canvas to mitigate his pain?

  17. As you were reading, did you think Jason was going to kill Jim in the last scene of the book? Why do you think he spared his life?

  18. Jim inhabits many roles throughout the novel: artist, father, spouse, lover, fisherman, criminal, celebrity. Which role makes him happiest? Which brings about the most conflict in his life?

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Knopf. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

The Painter is a beautiful and brutal novel about art and violence, love and grief.

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Jim Stegner, the rugged yet highly sensitive and artistic narrator of Peter Heller's second novel, The Painter (first novel, The Dog Stars), moves to Paonia, Colorado after suffering the loss of his beloved daughter, separating from his hot-tempered lover, and divorcing out of an uninspiring marriage. He wraps himself in the beauty of the rivers and mountains, and – through a combination of fishing and painting – tries to defuse the rage and sadness he always carries. He explains, "This is my new home. It's kind of overwhelming how beautiful. …A good place I guess to make a field of peace, to gather and breathe."

But despite his sincere intentions to lay low and regroup, Stegner can't help but cause trouble when he sees an injustice that reignites his fuse. Dellwood Siminoe, a local hunter and jerk-at-large is abusing a tiny horse, "swinging the club against the little mare like she was a piñata." Jim loses all self-control. His impulsive, violent behavior starts a domino effect he can't stop, and he quickly finds himself in deep, deep trouble.

The complexity of Peter Heller's characters, specifically Stegner, and his ability to integrate art with violence, poetry with addiction, and nature with deep introspection, makes The Painter an absolutely vibrant read. The line between good and bad is not clearly defined, and detestable deeds often have logical explanations. The first person narration allows readers to get inside Jim's thoughts (which are often in great contrast to his actions), and his short, fragmented sentences breathe life into the narrative. He is a Hemingway-esque character – outdoorsy, tough, alcoholic – but with a softer side. He seems secure in his masculinity, which allows him to explore his feelings without being threatened or overly macho. He often recalls tender moments with his daughter, gets lost in the beauty of small creatures, and recites poetry to himself. In this way, Heller creates an interesting, three-dimensional character who is riveting.

The setting for the story, the gold and purple landscape of the Southwest (Colorado and New Mexico specifically), plays an important role in The Painter. Heller takes his time describing the rivers and trees, the simultaneous grandeur and delicacy of nature. He writes:

This is how I healed. Or didn't. …We turned off the highway and rattled slowly up the gravel road and into the heart of the canyon. The walls closed in above us, the high blue of the sky deeper, deep and dark like a river is deep. The highest rock at the rim was a strip of fire, holding the last long sun. …We drove with the windows down and the wind came down against us bringing a night's cold and blowing the last rattling leaves off the cottonwoods. They blew into the river and floated slowly in the pools, pushed by the wrinkles of the wind, singly and in sad fleets.

Heller's poetic language slows the narrative and gives it a quiet, peaceful feel, in between bursts of intense plot development that keep the story moving. The effect isn't jarring at all, but allows readers to savor each scene. Though the plot and subject matter are quite dark, the novel isn't one of despair. Humanity, redemption, and forgiveness lie at the heart of the story, and each character acts nobly within his world view, no matter how distorted it might be.

Heller's respect for art and literature as means of expression, his gorgeous descriptions of the landscapes, his driving plotline, and his complex characters all combine to create a thoughtful and deeply satisfying read. I recommend The Painter to people who appreciate the outdoors, to people who could spend twenty minutes contemplating one painting in an art museum, and to people who prefer gray spaces to black and white. Two thumbs up.

Reviewed by Elena Spagnolie

O, The Oprah Magazine
A riveting second novel from the author of The Dog Stars . . . An artist settles into a quiet new life in Colorado after serving time for shooting a man in a bar fight--and reconnects with his old rage.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. [Heller] explores the mysteries of the human heart and creates an indelible portrait of a man searching for peace, while seeking to maintain his humanity in the face of violence and injustice.

Booklist
Starred Review. Heller's writing is sure-footed and rip-roaring, star-bright and laced with 'dark yearning,' coalescing in an ever-escalating, ravishing, grandly engrossing and satisfying tale of righteousness and revenge, artistic fervor and moral ambiguity.

Library Journal
Starred Review. Difficult to define by genre, this novel embraces themes of personal loss and growth, drama and suspense, while also including plenty for those who enjoy art or nature fiction. Highly recommended.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Diane S
The PAinter
When I first started this book I had some trouble getting into it. What kept me reading were the wonderful words and beautiful descriptions of scenery and wildlife and the compelling, but complicated persona that is the character Jim Stegner. This is a novel of contrasts, dark and gritty alongside beauty and peace.

Jim is a haunted man, a man at war, not in some other country, but within his own self. He seeks peace in painting and fly fishing and there are many descriptions of both. He is haunted by his Mother's death when he was a teenager and before he had a chance to tell her he loved her and by his fifteen yr.old daughters murder. Now a painter whose paintings sell quite well, he is living the life of a recluse in Colorado. He paints and fished to forget and also to remember. He is a smart man, one who reads novels and quotes from his favorite poets.

Yet within his psyche lives darkness and as once before an incident for which he served jail time, a situation will find him again losing control. Will the darkness once again control his life, or will he find peace and acceptance within himself? As the tension mounts and the new trouble threatens his peace, freedom and life, his paintings get better and better, come faster and faster. This will confront him with another moral dilemma.

Told in a first person narrative, this is an amazing book about a man's quest for redemption. Using nature and painting to exercise his demons, a man wanting peace but his very nature makes this less than impossible. A book to be patient with and to feel the emotional impact of this character. He could be anyone of us.

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Artwork in The Painter

Art plays a very important role in Peter Heller's vibrant and introspective second novel, The Painter. Narrator Jim Stegner describes various famous works of art as a way of processing his emotions. He expresses how the colors and textures of each masterpiece affect him at a deep level, and he ponders what these deep emotions mean about his personality, his mental state, and the human condition. It's a fascinating way to get to know a character; to peek inside Stegner's thoughts as he encounters a painting for the first time and understand how his feelings relate to the context of the painting itself - when, why, how it was created. Below are images of four paintings he mentions in the book, brief historical and technical descriptions of those works, and selections from his internal reactions.

Pablo Picasso's Guernica (1937)

Pablo Picasso's Guernica"An accurate depiction of a cruel, dramatic situation, Guernica was created to be part of the Spanish Pavilion at the International Exposition in Paris in 1937. Pablo Picasso's motivation for painting the scene in this great work was the news of the German aerial bombing of the Basque town whose name the piece bears... Neither the studies nor the finished picture contain a single allusion to a specific event, constituting instead a generic plea against the barbarity and terror of war. The muted colours, the intensity of each and every one of the motifs and the way they are articulated are all essential to the extreme tragedy of the scene…" (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Sofia Reina website)

[I think of Guernica, the painting. The knife in the horse. A story I read once by one of the Russians, maybe Chekhov, a man beating a horse. How seeing it happen is so much worse. A big man wreaking his anger on a tied horse who cannot even beg. (p.37)]

Paul Delvaux's Sleeping Venus (1944)

Paul Delvaux's Sleeping Venus"Delvaux's work combined classical perfection with an erotic and troubling atmosphere. The sensuousness of Sleeping Venus is set against its oppressive night-time setting. Delvaux later explained that it was painted in Brussels during the German wartime occupation and while the city was being bombed. 'The psychology of that moment was very exceptional, full of drama and anguish,' he recalled. 'I wanted to express this anguish in the picture, contrasted with the calm of the Venus.'" (display caption at the Tate Museum)

[Guilt maybe. At the voyeurism of studying this woman who could not know I was watching. At the shame of being stimulated 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. (p.267)]

Pablo Picasso's Nude Woman in a Red Armchair (1932)

Pablo Picasso's Nude Woman in a Red Armchair"This work belongs to the remarkable sequence of portraits that Picasso made of Marie-Thérèse Walter at his country property at Boisgeloup. Marie-Thérèse is presented here – as in most of her portraits – as a series of sensuous curves. Even the scrolling arms of the chair have been heightened and exaggerated to echo the rounded forms of her body. The face is a double or metamorphic image: the right side can also be seen as the face of a lover in profile, kissing her on the lips." (Tate Museum display caption)

[The painting was so simple. Simple joy, simple sensual heat, simple love in her presence. I felt what Picasso must have felt. She was clearly an uncomplicated soul and I imagined that she reduced all the world before her to its simplest and most fiercely living elements. I imagined that the world talked back to her in the clearest colors, the cleanest music. How else to live in love? (p.266)]

Winslow Homer's The Fog Warning (1885)

Winslow Homer's The Fog Warning"The Fog Warning is a painting with a narrative, though its tale is disturbing rather than charming. As indicated by the halibut in his dory, the fisherman in this picture has been successful. But the hardest task of the day, the return to the main ship, is still ahead of him. He turns to look at the horizon, measuring the distance to the mother ship, and to safety. The seas are choppy and the dory rocks high on the waves, making it clear that the journey home will require considerable physical effort. But more threatening is the approaching fog bank, whose streamers echo, even mock, the fisherman's profile." (Museum of Fine Arts Boston website)

[It shocked me. This was a shock of life. …This sea was alive and the colors, they came through my skin and they were cold. The slates and silvers and grays. And how the man was pinned on the sea between life and death…How I was feeling, I guess in my own life, why it hit me so hard. The fog meant oblivion, but it also meant respite. I was seventeen and I was already exhausted. (p.205)]



Other artists Stegner ponders include Georgia O'Keeffe, Robert Rauschenbert, and Henri Matisse.

By Elena Spagnolie

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