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by Peter Heller
Knopf, May 2014
394 pages
ISBN: 0385352093

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

First, he is a painter. Jim Stegner, the artist who tells his story in Peter Heller's THE PAINTER, paints as a way of making sense of the world and retreating from the world at the same time. His paintings seem to come from an unconscious knowing, and they lead him toward a conscious understanding of himself as the book progresses. He sees the world through a painter's eyes, and Heller translates his vision with beautiful and evocative language. Jim Stegner is an expressionist, and as such his paintings help him process and understand the emotions and feelings he has throughout the course of the events of THE PAINTER. Heller could be said to be an expressionist author, for the same reason. Heller makes the act of creating so viscerally clear that it feels as if the act of reading is an act of creating as well.

Second, he is a Westerner. Jim's appreciation for the quiet of open spaces, the beauty of western landscapes, and the intense individuality of fly fishing all exemplify the western mind. Equally, the roughness of his behavior, the harshness of the environment, and the acceptance of gun-toting vigilantism evoke a western society that can appreciate art while eschewing intellectualism. Jim struggles with "being good," even as he knows he "is good."He attempts to strip himself down to the core of who he is with little consideration for who others perceive him to be. It is no accident that Heller has given Jim the surname Stegner, invoking the presence of the iconic Western writer, Wallace Stegner.

And last, he is a murderer. THE PAINTER opens with Stegner thinking back to the event that sent him to prison, the shooting of a leering rapist who had just made a suggestive comment about Jim's young daughter. Jim's focus narrowed down to that one comment, and his resulting actions happened almost as reflex; a theme that repeats itself throughout the narrative. Coming across a scene of animal brutality early in the book, Jim has that same frighteningly focused experience of rage. How that encounter ends, and how the results play out across a number of murders, a police investigation, and a vendetta forms the core of an intensely suspenseful plot. The time we spend within Jim's mind, as he slowly comes to terms with his losses and his actions, leads inexorably toward the showdown of the final scene.

Painting and fly-fishing are escapes for Jim along the way, and Heller does an extremely fine job of transporting us into the all-encompassing experience of each. I was reminded of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's FLOW as I read the numerous passages describing Jim's immersion in the creation of art or as he challenges the fish with his fly rod. This is an amazing book, one that has it all. There's murder and suspense, sex and love, deep introspection; and, throughout it all, that beautiful, beautiful writing.

Sharon Mensing is the Head of School of Emerald Mountain School, an independent school in the mountains of Colorado, where she lives, reads, and enjoys the outdoors.

Reviewed by Sharon Mensing, June 2014

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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