Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘The Painter’
364 pages, hardcover, $24.95
Alfred A. Knopf, 2014
“I am pretty good, somewhat famous, which means it gets harder to be quiet.”
So declares Jim Stegner, the titular painter of Denver author Peter Heller’s “The Painter.” Stegner is a bearded macho man who works in oils — the kind of tough guy artist that broods and fishes and broods some more and loves animals in a way he can’t love humans, other than his long-dead daughter whose memory (quite literally) haunts him. He’s a Hemingway-esque caricature, a man so hard he doesn’t need to use subjects in his clipped sentences.
He killed a man — a sex offender, so, you know, it’s OK for readers to root for him on his hero’s journey — and did his time in prison for it. Now he’s out, trying to stay sober, and has settled in to “be quiet” in Paonia. But when he witnesses a local outfitter beating a horse, his rage overcomes him in two acts of violence. Those confrontations send him on the run from the law, his victim’s family and the press. On the plus side: being a person of interest in a murder is good for art sales.
As a thriller, this is well-executed, entertaining stuff. And “The Painter” is cleverly constructed, with titles and details about paintings as chapter titles, and the chapters that follow touching on the work. But whenever it slows down — and it slows down a lot — “The Painter” falls apart.
It’s set in Paonia, providing a minor thrill for anyone who knows the North Fork Valley. But Paonia deserves better. Heller portrays the town as a one-dimensional hodge-podge of western clichés — the sort of rough-and-tumble mountain hamlet where tough men fish and hunt and ride horses and speak in hard-boiled prose. (His arch treatment of the Santa Fe art scene is more engaging).
“The Painter” is a page-turner with grating ambitions to be more. And though Heller falls short of those hopes in this follow-up to his triumphant debut, “The Dog Stars,” you’ll keep turning the pages.
“The Painter” is nominated for the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction. The awards ceremony is June 21 at the Doerr-Hosier Center at Aspen Meadows. Tickets are available by calling 303-984-7951.