by Peter Heller
364 pages (hardcover)
Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of books with middle-aged, moderately disturbed, first-person male narrators (like Summer House with Swimming Pool and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour). For obvious reasons, it’s a bit difficult for me to really connect with a book about a fifty-year-old dude having a mid-life crisis or a crisis of conscience or any other kind of crisis.
But there’s something about this book and its titular painter and first-person narrator, Jim Stegner, that drew me in. Stegner is a forty-something, twice-divorced artist who lives in a cabin in rural Colorado. He spends his days painting, fly-fishing, smoking, and thinking about alcohol (he’s a recovering alcoholic and hasn’t had a drink in three years). His daughter, Alce, whom he taught to fly-fish and considered his best friend, was murdered when she was fifteen, and he carries tremendous guilt over her death (he believes he didn’t adequately protect her) and grieves her loss every day.
In part due to his grief over Alce’s death, Stegner has a lot of pent-up rage, and he has a tendency to unleash it in a very volatile manner when provoked . . . like the time he shot a man with a .41 magnum at point-blank range for making lewd comments about his daughter. Or the time an interviewer for a live radio show asked him “why, coming from a family of gypo loggers in Oregon, [he] had decided to paint.” (“It seems terribly brave. Or reckless? I mean where you came from. Your father was practically illiterate.”). The question pissed Stegner off (“[T]his question stopped my wildly beating heart for a moment and stiffened my bristles and raised hackles I suddenly discovered I had.”), so, in response, Stegner extended his hand, “like for a handshake,” and then gripped and squeezed the interviewer’s hand until “he was howling and then I felt a bone snap, one of the knuckles in the first joint and he screamed, an unbridled, uncensored live radio shriek.”
Early in the book, this same rage leads Stegner to get in a fight on the street with a stranger. On his way to the creek to do some fly-fishing, Stegner witnesses the man beating a disobedient mare with a two-by-four, and he loses it. He climbs out of his truck, punches the guy in the nose, and takes the horse. This sets in motion a string of terrible actions and reactions, including arson, murder, and shootings. But, all the while, Stegner retains his peace of mind by fly-fishing and painting.
Each chapter of the book begins with a brief description (similar to what you’d see accompanying a work in a gallery or museum) of one or two of his paintings, like:
OIL ON LINEN
40 x 50 INCHES
COLLECTION OF THE ARTIST
The chapter then, in an indirect way, describes the inspiration for the work, the circumstances surrounding it, Stegner’s mood while he painted it, and his process. This could easily come across as cheesy or gimmicky, but it doesn’t. Instead, it is a creative and stylistic device that allows you to understand Stegner a bit better and to see the motivation for his boiling anger and unbridled grief. It works.
What doesn’t work as well for me is the writing style. Author Peter Heller has an MFA in both fiction and poetry. Fiction writers who hold MFAs in poetry have a tendency to write, well, poetically (Kevin Powers and his writing in The Yellow Birds is another example that springs to mind immediately). I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I will say it again: I am not a huge fan of flowery, overly descriptive, poetic writing. I find that overly poetic writing tends to weigh a book down, slow its pace, and make it feel contrived. This paragraph is a perfect example:
Not a single car passed in not sure how much time. A katydid pulsed out of the grass on the shoulder. The blackbirds buzzed and shrieked in happy territorial arguments. The sun climbed over the low ridge behind me and threw my shadow down to water’s edge. After a while the beaver in the closest pond emerged and cut a faint wake across the still water. Came back. Some woodless errand. I could hear too the slow current pouring over the closest dam, shifting and burbling in the pool below. I painted. Painted the pace of it, the sounds as much as anything. The calm. It calmed me. That thing that happened where I disappear. Except this time it was not into the poised energy of a woman, or into some watery interior landscape, but into instead the quiet creek in front of me, into the raucous commerce of corvids, the inscrutable transit of a beaver, the slow breathing of the morning. It was different and soothing and freeing and I didn’t even know that I’d disappeared until I heard the higher vibration of an approaching car, still a ways off.
I understand, of course, that this is a matter of personal preference. Some people can’t get enough adjectives and details about nature and pretty, lyrical sentences. If poetic writing is your speed, then you will love this book. But I found myself flipping pages to see when the next batch of dialogue was coming up. In refreshing contrast to that weighty, long-winded paragraph (and many others like it), Heller’s dialogue is straight and sharp. The combo of the flowery, descriptive paragraphs and the choppy dialogue offers a nice, conflicting juxtaposition that mirrors the contrast between the crazy, fast-paced action/crime side of the novel and the mellow, slow-paced, contemplative fly-fishing/having a smoke/painting side of the novel. I just wish the balance had been weighted more in favor of the straight and sharp dialogue and the fast-paced action.
- An Amazon Best Book of the Month for May 2014;
- One of New York Post’s “29 Best Books of the Summer.”
Who should read it: Joe (i.e., people who like poetic writing and are outdoorsy).
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:
- The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick (the novel from which the Oscar-winning movie was adapted)
- The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman (an Amazon Best Book of the Month for June 2014 and pick for the June 2014 Indie Next List)