Synopses & Reviews
Peter Heller, the celebrated author of the breakout best seller The Dog Stars
, returns with an achingly beautiful, wildly suspenseful second novel about an artist trying to outrun his past.
Years ago, Jim Stegner shot a man in a bar. The man lived, Jim served his time, and he has learned to control the dark impulses that threaten to overtake him. Jim lives a quiet life. He doesn't drink. He goes fishing. He works as a painter, selling his art for good money at a gallery in Santa Fe. One day, driving down a dirt road, Jim sees a man beating a small horse. Without thinking, he stops, jumps out of the truck, and tackles the man, punching him and breaking his nose. The man is Dell, an outfitter notorious among locals, and the altercation awakens an anger inside of Jim. At night Jim paints. He paints a man digging a grave. Horrified, Jim hides the painting, but he can't hide his rage over the horse. Under a full moon, Jim goes to the river, and running into Dell, drunk and unaware, Jim kills him in cold blood. As Jim tries to come to terms with what he has done, he must evade the police-police who know his past, who know he hit Dell days before, who are hot on his trail — while also evading Dell's brother, an equally dangerous man set on revenge. Traveling from the rough adobe cottages and rivers of Colorado to the bright streets and galleries of Santa Fe, aching with grief for all he has seen, Jim tries to reconcile the love he feels in his heart with the violence that comes so easily.
"Jim Stegner, celebrated painter, ardent fisherman and homespun philosopher, narrates this masterful novel, in which love (parental and romantic), artistic vision, guilt, grief, and spine-chilling danger propel a suspenseful plot. In one aspect of his personality, Jim is a gentle, introspective man who reads and quotes poetry, feels at one with nature, and has full-hearted empathy with animals. But every now and then, if provocation occurs, rage 'a red blindness' swells up in him and destroys any restraint. When the novel opens, Jim has already served prison time for beating a man who leered at his teenage daughter. Now his daughter is dead, murdered at age 15, and Jim feels bitter guilt and endless remorse for the girl's death. After the tragedy, Jim's wife left him. He has retreated to a little house in a Colorado valley where he is painting with new urgency, beginning an affair with his young model, and conquering his alcohol and gambling addictions. When he comes upon a man brutally beating a horse, however, Jim's rage rises again. The rest of Heller's story includes two murders that Jim is involved with, and also a period of artistic flowering, as paintings that portray his psychological state flow from his palette. Heller (The Dog Stars) is equally skillful at describing the creation of a painting as he is at describing the thrilling details of a gunfight. Here, he explores the mysteries of the human heart and creates an indelible portrait of a man searching for peace, while seeking to maintain his humanity in the face of violence and injustice." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"An entertaining setup... The brawls and chase scenes have an edge-of-your-seatness that kept me turning the pages swiftly....When Jim takes to the mountains or streams, an un unwound lyricism takes over, Heller at his best....He has a keen, worshipful eye when describing the natural world: a trout hooked, a wave surfed....Striking....[A] moving story about love, celebrity, and the redemptive power of art." Benjamin Percy, The New York Times Book Review
"The 45-year-old painter Jim Stegner, the title character of Peter Heller's second novel, is a Renaissance man of the American West. He reads T. S. Eliot and listens to Tom Waits....He also has a bad habit, when his temper flares, of shooting at people and braining them with rocks....Jim's life changes decisively when he comes upon a blustery stranger abusing a small horse. Suspenseful scenes with the local authorities and vigilantes of various stripes propel the novel. Mr. Heller's...close attention to the natural world serves his fiction well. The Colorado and New Mexico landscapes evoked in The Painter give the novel a deeper than usual sense of place." John Williamson, The New York Times
"Following on the heels of his blockbuster post-apocalyptic novel The Dog Stars, Peter Heller descends into the murky realm of art, fame and murder in The Painter. Again Heller uses a charming first-person, fly-fishing narrator, this time to recount a taut tale of anger, revenge and inspiration....All the drama unfolds in the stunning landscapes of Colorado and New Mexico, which Heller portrays masterfully....One of the true charms of the novel is Heller's ability to describe Stegner's art, to make it vivid and real, and to place us in the head of an artist who feels himself both out of control and at the peak of his abilities....It's a suspenseful, compelling read throughout, and ultimately, that redemption is well-earned." Dallas Morning News
"Right and wrong. Good and evil. Often, these are difficult distinctions to make, as we see in this second novel from the author of the acclaimed The Dog Stars....At times suspenseful, at times melancholy, at times spiritual, but always engrossing....Compelling....This novel embraces themes of personal loss and growth, drama and suspense, while also including plenty for those who enjoy art or nature fiction. Highly recommended." Library Journal (starred)
"Heller's writing is sure-footed and rip-roaring, star-bright and laced with 'dark yearning,' coalescing in an ever-escalating, ravishing, grandly engrossing and satisfying tale of righteousness and revenge, artistic fervor and moral ambiguity." Booklist (starred)
Peter Heller, the celebrated author of the breakout best seller The Dog Stars, returns with an achingly beautiful, wildly suspenseful second novel about an artist trying to outrun his past.
Jim Stegner has seen his share of violence and loss. Years ago he shot a man in a bar. His marriage disintegrated. He grieved the one thing he loved. In the wake of tragedy, Jim, a well-known expressionist painter, abandoned the art scene of Santa Fe to start fresh in the valleys of rural Colorado. Now he spends his days painting and fly-fishing, trying to find a way to live with the dark impulses that sometimes overtake him. He works with a lovely model. His paintings fetch excellent prices. But one afternoon, on a dirt road, Jim comes across a man beating a small horse, and a brutal encounter rips his quiet life wide open. Fleeing Colorado, chased by men set on retribution, Jim returns to New Mexico, tormented by his own relentless conscience.
A stunning, savage novel of art and violence, love and grief, The Painter is the story of a man who longs to transcend the shadows in his heart, a man intent on using the losses he has suffered to create a meaningful life.
About the Author
Peter Heller is the best-selling author of The Dog Stars. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in both fiction and poetry. An award-winning adventure writer and a longtime contributor to NPR, Heller is a contributing editor at Outside magazine, Men’s Journal, and National Geographic Adventure, and a regular contributor to Bloomberg Businessweek. He is also the author of several nonfiction books, including Kook, The Whale Warriors, and Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet’s Tsangpo River. He lives in Denver, Colorado.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of The Painter, best-selling author Peter Heller’s hauntingly beautiful novel about a reclusive artist who is forced to face his demons after a violent encounter in a small Colorado town.
1. The Painter opens several years before the rest of the narrative, in the bar where Jim fired the shot that changed the course of his life. Why do you think the author chose to open on this moment? How did it color your reading experience? Your perception of Jim?
2. An Ocean of Women is a painting born out of a comment made by Irmina. What was your interpretation of this painting? How does it relate to Jim’s treatment of women? Discuss Jim’s relationships with the following characters: Irmina, Sofia, Celia, Cristine. What similarities, if any, exist in how he treats each of these women? What does he admire about the women?
3. Discuss Jim’s relationship with Sofia. Why do you think he hesitates before initiating a physical relationship with her? In what ways is she a foil for his character?
4. The first-person narrative of The Painter allows for a slow reveal of information about Jim and his past. How did this piecemeal revelation add tension to the discussion of Alce’s death? How did it help to create a more sympathetic character?
5. Expressionism, as an artistic movement, is characterized by a preference for subjectivity over realism. Why do you think the author chooses to have Jim paint in this style? How do the concepts of realism versus subjectivity factor into the larger narrative concerns of The Painter?
6. In the beginning of the novel, Bob advises Jim to “be good.” These words are echoed throughout the novel, particularly as Jim wrestles with his self-image in the face of his increasingly violent behavior. Discuss the difference between being good and goodness as described by Jim on page 303. Is Jim a “good” person? What characters, if any, are “good” or display innate “goodness”?
7. On page 74, Jim describes how he “disappear[s]” in awe when viewing certain paintings and certain scenes of nature. Discuss the choice of wording. How do both art and nature provide a means of escapism for Jim throughout the novel?
8. Explore Jim’s relationship with Irmina. How does he rely on her for emotional support throughout the novel? How does she provide guidance for him?
9. Jim is a mostly self-taught painter. Discuss the moment when he realized that he wanted to paint. How did his experiences in childhood and adolescence influence his decision?
10. Trace the events that cause Jim’s violent side to emerge throughout the novel. What, if anything, do these events have in common?
11. Discuss the significance of the painting of the horse and crow. Why do you think the painting has “changed” in his absence after he assaults Celia’s ex-boyfriend? (page 216)
12. Jim paints for himself, but also needs to paint as a means of economic stability. By the end of the novel, do you think he is more accepting of the relationship between creator and consumer, or do the events in Santa Fe harden him toward the interaction?
13. Discuss the “flash flood” as described on pages 289 to 292. Explore its symbolism in the narrative and the development of Jim as a character. Why do you think he signaled Jason? Was it an instinctual or merciful act?
14. Jim’s relationship with his art dealer, Steve, is fraught with tension. How did you view their relationship? Is it one of mutual respect? Of economic necessity? Do you think Steve is intimidated by Jim’s violent past?
15. When Jim goes to Santa Fe, he finds himself in the center of a media maelstrom, carefully constructed by Steve. Discuss Jim’s reaction to becoming a public figure. Why do you think he is most chagrined by the “blogger?”(page 320)
16. How does Jim’s guilt over his actions—both over Alce and his violent behavior—manifest throughout the novel? How does he take to the canvas to mitigate his pain?
17. As you were reading, did you think Jason was going to kill Jim in the last scene of the book? Why do you think he spared his life?
18. Jim inhabits many roles throughout the novel: artist, father, spouse, lover, fisherman, criminal, celebrity. Which role makes him happiest? Which brings about the most conflict in his life?