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The Painter
Cover of The Painter
The Painter
A novel
Borrow Borrow

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.

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.

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  • From the book

    BOOK ONE

    Mayhem

    OIL ON LINEN

    40 x 50 INCHES

    COLLECTION OF THE ARTIST

    I never imagined I would shoot a man. Or be a father. Or live so far from the sea.

    As a child, you imagine your life sometimes, how it will be.

    I never thought I would be a painter. That I might make a world and walk into it and forget myself. That art would be something I would not have any way of not doing.

    My own father was a logger, very gentle, who never fought with anyone.

    I could not have imagined that my daughter would be beautiful and strong like my mother. Whom she would never meet. Or that one afternoon at the Boxcar in Taos I would be drinking Jim Beam with a beer back and Lauder Simms would be at the next stool nursing a vodka tonic, probably his fourth or fifth, slurping the drink in a way that made ants run over my neck, his wet eyes glancing over again and again. The fucker who had skated on a certain conviction for raping a twelve year old girl in his movie theater downtown, looking at me now, saying,

    "Jim, your daughter is coming up nice, I like seeing her down at the theater."

    "Come again?"

    "Long legged like her mom, I mean not too skinny."

    "What?"

    "I don't mean too skinny, Jim. I mean just—" His leer, lips wet with tonic. "She's real interested in movies. Everything movies. I'm gonna train her up to be my little projectionist—"

    I never imagined something like that could be reflex, without thought: pulling out the .41 magnum, raising it to the man half turned on the stool, pulling the trigger. Point blank. The concussion inside the windowless room. Or how everything explodes like the inside of a dream and how Johnny, my friend, came lunging over the bar, over my arm, to keep me from pulling the trigger again. Who saved my life in a sense because the man who should have died never did. How the shot echoed for hours inside the bar, inside my head. Echoed for years.

    I painted that moment, the explosion of colors, the faces.

    How regret is corrosive, but one of the things it does not touch is that afternoon, not ever.



    CHAPTER ONE

    I

    An Ocean of Women

    OIL ON CANVAS

    52 x 48 INCHES

    My house is three miles south of town. There are forty acres of wheatgrass and sage, a ditch with a hedgerow of cottonwoods and willows, a small pond with a dock. The back fence gives on to the West Elk Mountains. Right there. They are rugged and they rise up just past the back of my place, from sage into juniper woods, then oak brush, then steep slopes of black timber, spruce and fir, and outcrops of rock and swaths of aspen clinging to the shoulders of the ridges. If I walk a few miles south, up around the flank of Mount Lamborn, I am in the Wilderness, which runs all the way to the Curecanti above Gunnison, and across to Crested Butte.

    From the little ramada I look south to all those mountains and east to the massif of Mount Gunnison. All rock and timber now in August. There's snow up there all but a few months a year. They tell me that some years the snow never vanishes. I'd like to see that.

    If I step out in front of the small house and look west it is softer and drier that direction: the gently stepping uplift of Black Mesa where the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River cuts through; other desert mesas; the Uncompahgre Plateau out beyond it all, hazy and blue.

    This is my new home. It's kind of overwhelming how beautiful. And little Paonia, funny name for a village out here, some old misspelling of Peony. Nestled down in all this high rough country like a train set. The North...
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.

Reviews-
  • AudioFile Magazine Part character study and part psychological thriller, Heller's stunning novel captures a few weeks in the life of a man who is haunted by personal losses and a blind rage he can't control. Narrator Mark Deakins taps into the painter's deepest self, bringing a full range of emotion to his performance in a way that gives listeners room to form their own reactions. Tuning into the rhythm of the prose, Deakins's reading flows no matter the nature of the scene--from a frenzied painting session in the art studio to a contemplative afternoon on a trout stream and from the violence of men to the sweetness of love. His respectful narration enlivens the story yet keeps the spotlight fully on the author's stark prose and vivid descriptions. C.B.L. Winner of AudioFile Earphones Award © AudioFile 2014, Portland, Maine
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from February 24, 2014
    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.

  • Benjamin Percy, The New York Times Book Review "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."
  • John Williamson, The New York Times "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."
  • Toronto Star "Heller's first fictional outing was The Dog Stars, a breakout post apocalyptic tale. His new book opens in rural Colorado where painter Jim Stegner -- failed husband, grieving father and barroom murderer -- is trying to glue his life back together when trouble strikes again."
  • Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly "Heller's prose style . . . works brilliantly at allowing readers inside Stegner's head to capture his often jagged thoughts. And Heller also does a wonderful job of evoking the process by which Stegner creates his paintings--a kind of furious inspiration that even he can't always understand--and the different kind of release he finds in his beloved pastime of fly-fishing. . . The Painter is a strikingly complex character study, one that parcels out information about the details of Stegner's back story while never building to an obvious cathartic revelation. Jim Stegner may be a mess of a man, but it's fascinating watching Heller plumb his broken soul."
  • Jackson Free Press "The Painter is simply fine and more than a little wondrous. Astute readers will allow the prose to get under their skin and just go with it. Like Stegner paints, don't think, just read. More than once, my mind turned to daydreams and soft memory, only to be jerked back to witness a fish dying, gasping for air, or a bullet shattering a window . . . Heller rarely missteps. No character devolves to caricature. His writing is strong and sure, at turns fizzy and sensual, dark and brooding, as filled with love as it is with suspense. This is stuff you'll taste in the back of your throat and feel at your nerves' ends."
  • Santa Fe New Mexican "The settings he moves through during his time in Santa Fe are as recognizable as if they were pulled from a postcard . . . Heller's novel also paints a recognizable picture of the local art scene and the art world in general . . . Heller's men are manly -- they're fisherman, they're comfortable with firearms, they lust after women -- but they aren't the clichéd macho types you might expect . . . That's what's unfamiliar in Heller's fiction, the unusual situations, the sense of being shadowed and stalked, and the gunplay that's common to both novels. In this sense, the stories are of a classic type: unusual men, the kind we can identify with even if we're not painters or pilots, thrust into unusual, even tragic situations. Yet at heart, these men are not so different than those we know."
  • Nashville Scene "The Painter achieves the rare alchemy that makes it simultaneously an intellectually provocative literary novel and a pace-quickening thriller. . . The novel alternates between adrenaline-fueled fight-and-chase scenes, striking images of the Western landscape and vivid descriptions of the artistic process and of Stegner's paintings themselves, which come to life in Heller's exacting language. . . Compulsively readable . . . Heller gives you everything you could hope for in a great summer novel:
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