Paperback, 384 pages
The Painter by Peter Heller
Reviewed by Royce Grubic
Southwestern Fantasy: Peter Heller’s The Painter (or “Everything You Never Wanted to Read about Fishing”)
“Before a good painting they started watching for clues to their own life.”
We can believe many things about Peter Heller’s Jim Stegner, the central character and narrator of the acclaimed novel The Painter—except that he is actually a painter. Oh, we read of his art career, the commissions, sales, gallery shows, the “relentless gauntlet of art” in that scene, his flamboyant agent, his paint-spattered clothes and mustache, his motivation for this piece or that, the fawning figure models he sleeps with, etc. In fact, each chapter is named after a painting featured in or inspired by the events of that chapter, such as “In Hostile Country, Oil on Canvas, 20 x 24 inches” or “An Ocean of Women, Oil on Canvas, 52 x 48 inches.” It is a nice gimmick, but it is clear from how these works are described as having been produced and their supposed composition that the author himself has never actually worked with any paints in the “real” world. Credulity is stretched much farther than the canvases. There isn’t any realistic sense of the time involved in creating complex images in that medium. Put simply, layers are needed and oil paints take a long damn time to dry. Even tossing off a water color isn’t like drawing on a chalkboard. Heller’s general ignorance of this becomes distracting.
Much more expertise is shown when it comes to fishing, though. Fishing in New Mexico’s hidden little streams and rivers is more than a hobby for Stegner (and presumably Heller)—it is a passion, a haven, a prayer, a metaphor for life. Whatever else it is, it is too much. Already by page 100 I felt like I was going to explode at the gills if I read one more rhapsodic paragraph on the subject. But these kept coming, proving that something can be poetic but still tedious, tender but ultimately oppressive. In other words, beauty can be boring (something to be said for fishing itself, I suppose) and even sort of exhausting without the right proportions. Heller is a lovely writer, but that alone doesn’t make for a successful novel. There does need to be economy.
When Jim near the conclusion muses, “I wonder if painting isn’t a way just to be like an animal for a few hours. To be in the stream of eternity or whatever. To feel like that. Same as fishing,” all the readers can say is, uh, we got the drift of that three hundred pages ago. It is painfully redundant for Heller to write at that point what he has been effectively saying for the entire book. We’d expect more subtlety from a fly fisherman.
Fishing in the book is also a symbol of the nostalgic bond Stegner had with his late daughter Alce (not Alice), who died as a teenager after descending into the drug scene. It was a quick dip into the Styx rather than a full dive into the abyss, but it was more than enough to be fatal. Stegner understandably is paralyzed with grief and guilt. He saw so much of Alce in himself—her pugnacity, her pain. “She died because she was just like me,” he confides to the reader. He suffocates with the thought that this was the fate he deserved (and still deserves), not her. To paraphrase a Chinese saying, “son buries father, all is right with the world”—but when a parent buries a child, that is a true tragedy. The Painter shows the depth and excruciating aftermath of such a loss. In the face of such a senseless and unjust act, many parents will scramble their brains to find a way to excuse God and still have faith in the goodness of the cosmic plan. As an artist (maybe especially as a painter in the land of O’Keefe), Stegner, prayerful as he is in his own fashion, has a profound spiritual sense but no recourse to the comforts of church or what one might call “cheap grace.” Stegner paints, fishes, goes through one shaky romance after another, and as an alcoholic tries not to drink. The emotions are stark and powerful in the book, the struggle real. Eventually he does seem to come to terms with the inescapable truth in life that the cost of loving is potential loss. Although we hope that no parent will have to bury a child, the risk of that comes with the deal. There are hearts inside of us, though, as much as we might try to douse them in alcohol or hide them away. There really isn’t much of an option in this world besides daring to love. This is one of the great lessons of The Painter.
Despite all his emotional turmoil, we’re supposed to believe that Stegner is no sighing young Werther-type but instead a real man. His name is Jim, after all. He’s not just a “tuned-in” fisherman and muscular lover, but also a dusty ol’ pick-up truck driving, gun-toting, cigar-smoking, horse-rescuing, radio host-punching, steak-eating, honest-to-goodness dude (and an ex-con at that), in what is a part seemingly tailor-made for early 1980s Clint Eastwood. Of course, all the women in the story throw themselves at him—and maybe even more unbelievably, they all understand his artwork. Hell, what good is genius if it doesn’t magically remove panties and get you laid? Sure, Jim quotes poetry (or, better said, the author quotes a few lines of Rilke and T.S. Eliot that he has Stegner recite in very contrived passages of the book), but he’s also a murderer.
The main action of the story focuses on his violent run-ins with a family of poachers. This is where the novel becomes the suspenseful and intriguing page-turner the critics have made it out to be. It is more than just the tale of an artist’s process or a father’s grief, it’s also a thriller, and a fairly good one, replete with art forensics and other fun variations of a familiar theme. And with one of his adversaries Jim shares a compelling symmetry and unexpected bond.
Again, a fairly good thriller. Apart from the standard unassuming, coy, secretly sharp detective role(s) (see Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and every episode of Columbo), a car chase scene of sorts (ugh), and the difficulty we have in believing that Heller is actually well-versed in the techniques he describes in The Painter, the novel also suffers from its unrelenting use of limited first person narrative, mostly in the present tense. For many reasons, it’s hard to think of too many works that can pull off this approach for 350 pages, and Heller doesn’t always maintain consistency of voice. For instance, there is a spell about two-thirds through the book where Stegner suddenly and constantly starts saying “Well.” More fundamentally, for readers it is often an insurmountable challenge to imagine when and where the narrator is telling this story or how the dialogue is being so precisely “remembered,” but admittedly that is true of most examples in the genre. This may be even more of an issue, though, when the narrator is presented as the proverbial strong and silent type. However, we can (more or less) imagine that the writing itself is the final part of the Stegner’s redemption. We just can’t quite so readily believe he would stop fishing long enough to write it.
Flaws aside, there is enduring wisdom in The Painter, particularly when it comes to the weight of time, memory, and love, and how art can help us exorcise demons—to move them from the ugly column of life to the side of lasting beauty, regardless of whether we are making a living at it or not. There is amazing power in the hands of painters. They show us a lifeline, a path to serenity and even immortality, and give themselves meaning and solace along the way. Still I wonder this novel all in all is worth the trip. As Frank Zappa put it, writing about music is like dancing about architecture; change “writing” to “painting and fishing,” and we might have nailed down the most basic problem with the book. To use one of Heller’s own memorable similes, it’s all about as natural as a stump.
-RPG (September 9,2015)