Everyone carries baggage, with choices made earlier in life piling up like strata, weighing us down and making us who we are. Art, at its best, reflects those dark corners, fed as it is by the waters of our masked memories and layered life lessons. In his recent novel, “The Painter,” Colorado author, Peter Heller, probes that intersection of the creative spirit and the murky recesses of a burdened mind.
For protagonist, Jim Stegner, the burdens of life threaten to overwhelm him; he is an artist who paints with a passion and who lives his life coiled and ready to explode in violence. A talented and quirky painter, Stegner finds solace in his art, as well as in the natural surroundings that inspire him. Heller clearly writes with a love of place, his attachment to the landscapes of Colorado and New Mexico shining eloquently through the weave of his loose and snappy tone.
It is those moments of visual poetry in “The Painter” that make it unique, especially juxtaposed to the glaring contrast of a concurrent plot that runs throughout the novel. For in addition to being a deeply sensitive artist, Heller’s main character is a violent man, an ex-felon whose violent past continues to haunt and sway his behavior.
The puzzle of Jim Stegner’s life is divulged slowly, as gradually as dabs of color on a canvas reveal the image pulled from an artist’s imagination. Tortured by the loss of his teenaged daughter to street violence resulting from her bad choices, Stegner has pent up guilt from his perceived failures as a father. His painting gives him peace, an escape for his mind, which dwells with a relentless certainty on the shortfalls of his life. “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.”
Stegner is feeding this compulsion to paint, enjoying a calm existence in the small town of Paonia, Colorado, when he has the misfortune, while out fly fishing, of coming upon a man beating a horse. Something in his mind snaps, and he intervenes, violently. In the course of the tussle, the horse becomes his, and the man and his posse become his enemies.
In contrast to the Tarantino-style ripple of violence that pervades the narrative from this point on, is the lyrical depiction of the sensuality of nature. Heller writes evocatively of the calming effects of natural places, emphasizing, especially, the changes in light, and the sounds and smells of rain, which run through the novel like the rivers in which he casts his fishing line. The book is tactile, deeply enamored of the senses, and it is a fitting read for anyone who has felt the ache of nature, and the unspecific longing it imbibes.
Fishing is the link to the memories of Stegner’s daughter, the shared moments that he amassed with her as a child along riverbanks under dappled light. Fishing helps him to forget—and to remember. He longs for that moment when he catches a beautiful fish, cradles its shimmering body under the water for several moments, and releases it, sending a heartfelt thanks to the creature who helps him live and remember for another day.
The narrative is not linear, but rather a series of loops and spirals, of trains of thought that become images on his canvases. There are two parallel threads to the story, the first being the metaphoric and philosophical line that is represented in the natural surroundings that are so evocative to him. The second is the thriller theme, filled with very Bond-esque, and somewhat unrealistic action sequences.
The point where the two merge and coalesce is deeply entertaining, though at times it results in a disjointed and jarring message, which one can suppose was done with intent. There is nothing conventional about “The Painter,” reading, as it does, like a parable on a grand scale.