Peter Heller, best-selling author of "The Dog Stars," wowed Bend audiences last year when he visited the community as part of The Deschutes County Public Library's "Novel Idea" program. His sophomore novel, "The Painter," offers yet another moving narrative, and one that is sure to appeal to the outdoorsy, artistic, life-on-the-fringes reader, a demographic which Central Oregon has in spades.
Where "The Dog Stars" delved into a post-apocalyptic journey of death and loss, "The Painter" immerses the reader in the murky world of art, fame and murder. What remains consistent between the two is Heller's charming use of the first person, a hapless fly-fishing narrator, and a plot interwoven with the shortcomings of the human spirit, stunning natural beauty, and endnotes of hope, albeit bittersweet.
The story is told by Jim Stegner, a self-taught, outsider artist who has holed up in a remote Colorado cabin after a short stint in prison for impulsively shooting a would-be rapist in a bar. Compounding his misery (and fueling his artistic fervor), is the death of his teenage daughter Alce, who was killed mysteriously in what is assumed to be a drug deal gone bad. Tortured by the guilt of his parental neglect, failed relationships, and the consequences of his hot temper and hard drinking, Stegner finds respite only on the river—where many of the most beautiful scenes in the book take place.
Driving toward his favorite fishing hole, Stegner happens upon a poacher viciously beating a horse. When a chance encounter later that night (Stegner likes to fish by moonlight) puts the poacher in his path, Stegner bows to a murderous impulse, and kills the man in cold blood. He quickly becomes the prime suspect in the small town investigation, and the target of the poacher's brother, a man named Grant, who seeks revenge.
The novel's dramatic unfolding is complicated by Stegner's fame as a bad boy in the typically gentile Southwestern art world. After breaking a disc jockey's fingers when he asked an offensive interview question, Stegner earned an early reputation as an unpredictable, if likeable, rogue. However, his implication in the poacher's murder only heightens his popularity in the art world and beyond, and his new vigilante status sparks more bad decisions, and finally, a moment of grace.
Placed against the grand backdrop of the Rocky Mountains and the Southwestern desert, Heller's descriptions of landscape and the art of fly fishing are stunning, and well worth a jumpy plot that seems at times to spin out of control. But one of the most successful aspects of the novel is how Heller places the reader in the head of this flawed man (Is he a hero or antihero? Does it matter?) as he attempts to redeem himself despite unbearable loss.
Heller's characters are manly men—they're fishermen, comfortable with firearms and lust after women—but in both novels, he manages to subvert the macho cliché, and reveals an oddly contemporary Western man, both sensitive and gnarled. Men who drink Wild Turkey while reading Rilke, and cook paella in cast iron pots. Men who love to hunt, but don't enjoy killing; who reject the usual models of family and success, and yet are more like their grandfathers than their fathers. In any case, I'm hooked.