It’s a troubling book, Peter Heller’s second novel, “The Painter.’’ After his impressive debut as a fiction writer in “The Dog Stars,’’ a seamless and convincing dystopia set in the near future in the Rockies, Heller has written a novel about a flawed main character whose faulty moral compass nearly wrecks the balance and appeal of the book itself.
Jim Stegner, the painter of the title and the book’s narrator, is professionally quite successful. He produces his canvases with almost assembly-line speed — at one point he refers to himself as “the slapdash king” of American painting — and they sell extremely well.
On the surface Stegner’s life seems nearly complete, with him fishing almost every day and dallying with an attractive model. He has serious personal problems, though. He is a recovering alcoholic, has a horrific temper that flares periodically, and when we first meet him he has already served prison time for nearly shooting to death a boorish neighbor in a bar.
At the root of his volcanic personality lies a miserable fact — his gnawing grief over the death of his teenage daughter, Alce, in a drug deal gone bad in the parking lot. This event, like others in the book, are gradually revealed as we follow the ebb and flow of Stegner’s life and memory.
In this otherwise rather carefully composed story about one man’s downward turning life in the American West, Stegner appears to be both a man of action, though those actions sometimes turn destructive, and an artist calmly interpreting on canvas the visually stimulating world around him.
As the events that kick off the main action make clear he is a jarring character. He is someone who can live both as a destroyer and creator, adjusting this duality in his soul with a certain alacrity. Which struck me as a bit psychotic. In fact reading about him made me a little crazy.
Here’s what happens. While taking a break to fish after the completion of yet another saleable canvas, Stegner drives off into the Colorado wilderness to find a good stream.
On the trail to the fishing place he encounters a scene right out of Dostoyevsky, a hunting guide nearly beating to death an intractable young horse. In the thrall of a rage Stegner calls his “red blindness,” he intervenes, and the guide spits in his face, abandoning the wounded animal on the trail.
Stegner takes the battered horse as his own. Though things don’t stop there. Under cover of darkness he returns to the guide’s creek-side camp ostensibly to fish and ends up murdering the man.
Horrific, but far as plots go, so far so good. Because of the incident with the horse, Stegner, almost immediately becomes “a person of interest” in the eyes of local police. With this hanging over his head he tries to hold his life together by taking to the road to fish.
And when he’s not fishing, this voluble and apparently gifted painter keeps producing his canvases, though nothing we hear about his work can compare to the lyrical descriptions he treats us to about the beauty and character of the Colorado, and later, New Mexico, landscapes through which he travels.
Consider this moment when Stegner has driven off-road once to cast a fly into potentially bountiful waters:
“Vast grass and sage plains, wooded hills . . . warm air and the tangy scents of Mormon tea and sage . . . The sun was gone and the country ahead had more trees and the air . . . was suddenly chill and smelled of pines. The trees and the asters scattered along the shoulder of the road and the boulders sitting on the slopes all rested in that moment when every line is sharp and things seem to radiate color from within themselves.”
Such beautiful near-visionary descriptions shored against the character’s red blind rages suggest that the novelist was trying to find that perfect balanced moment, the fusion of Stegner’s healthy aesthetic and his murderous temper.
Unfortunately the result remains imperfect, sometimes tipping toward one pole, sometimes toward the other, producing overall a troubled, if not flawed novel that never feels cleanly resolved. Though I have to admit, in spite of these problems, I read with great fascination and kept on reading all the way to the end.