Heller's suspenseful 'The Painter' is a page-turner

Book Review: "The Painter" by Peter Heller

If you want a riveting read, full of surprising twists in both character and plot, pick up "The Painter," by Peter Heller.

Successful artist Jim Stegner has abandoned the commercialized art scene to spend his days fly fishing and painting in the beautiful wildness of rural Colorado after a personal tragedy. Years before that, he had shot a man in a bar, revealing a dark streak that eventually cost him the one person he loved. All goes well with his fresh start - the paintings he sends his agent sell well and he begins to find peace - until on his way to a fishing spot he comes upon a man gleefully beating a small horse to senselessness, and his fragile new life gets ripped apart by his own brutal response to the situation.

Jim Stegner is an infinitely complex character who mulls over and savors T.S. Elliot and Rilke, listens to Tom Waits when he's not painting or fishing or beating bad guys, or ruminating on the human condition, and Heller keeps readers close to his character's somewhat jagged inner world. Because of Stegner's tough outdoorsyness, several critics have called Stegner Hemingway-esque. "What do you get when you cross Ernest Hemingway with Jackson Pollock? Something like white-bearded Jim Stegner, the 45-year-old man's man of an artist at the heart of 'The Painter,'" writes Mike Fischer of The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. But Stegner is not Hemingway, had never imagined himself shooting a man or doing any of the other things he feels compelled to do, and he suffers mightily for it.

"The Painter" is a very rich novel indeed, chock full of suspense while Stegner is chased by men set on retribution, quiet moments in nature while fly fishing, and insights into the darks and lights of human nature. And then there is the love that glues it all together, a multifaceted love that in the end allows for compassion and redemption. A warning, though: Don't pick this book up without understanding that you might just give up a night's sleep to finish it.

Reviewed by Susan Lang, Peregrine Book Company event coordinator