Alfred A. Knopf/ Random House, $24.95, 365 pages, ISBN 978-0-385-35209-3
I keep a couple of different stacks of books to be reviewed in my office—actually it’s our dining room table–at all times. The stacks increase and decrease as I read and review, and sometimes, a new novel gets inadvertently shoved down the pile . . . which means that it doesn’t get the attention it deserves in a timely fashion . . . and that’s the case, I’m sorry to say, with this week’s Mysterious Book Report number 192. It’s a year late, for which I offer my most humble apologies to the author and all of you dedicated readers and fans of the column.
The Painter, by Colorado author Peter Heller is a masterful tour de force that examines the pain of loss, creative genius and personal torment, love, violence and the redemptive power found in the beauty of nature. It is an awesome, exciting and disturbing work of beautiful prose by a remarkable young talent.
The Painter begins when protagonist Jim Stegner, (the name no doubt, the author’s homage to Wallace Stegner . . . arguably the greatest writer of the American West) an expressionist painter with a national following and a troubled past, moves to a tiny town in Colorado to escape his demons and the frenetic, soul-draining and overly commercialized Santa Fe art scene. The town is Paonia. It’s up on the north fork of the Gunnison River, at the western edge of the Gunnison National Forest, and roughly 150 miles north of the Colorado-New Mexico state line. He’s hoping for a fresh start, away from the violence that wrecked his marriage, sent him to prison and killed his daughter. At first his plan works. He’s at his most productive point in years, painting with an inspired brilliance and the art is flowing from his studio, much to the delight on his agent in Santa Fe and the many collectors of his work. But then a chance encounter with a man beating a horse in the middle of the road turns his idyllic new life inside-out . . . and the volcanic temper lurking just below the surface of his placid exterior erupts with the same intensity that it did when he shot a man, sending Stegner to the penitentiary. Stegner flees to Santa Fe, but vindictive relatives with revenge on their minds follow him—threatening to take not only his freedom—but his life. The conflicting emotions—the murderous rages, temperamental outbursts and the urge to create beauty in the world—are relieved only by the tranquility and peace he finds in fly fishing the rivers of southwest Colorado and Northern New Mexico, where author Peter Heller’s word paintings and descriptions are so artfully done that the reader will almost feel the shock of a big brown rising to hit the fly she’s put on the tippet at the end of her line, or hear the burble of the water and smell the tang of sage, spruce and pinion. The Painter is a captivating, beautifully written and well plotted work that transcends not only genre, but time and place as well. It’s outstanding!