Guest contributor: Bill Lundgren
categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence
Here’s a book to add to the summer reading list: The Painter by Peter Heller. Though highly recommended, I began this story with guarded expectations and then was slowly and inexorably seduced by the voice and ethos of the novel’s narrator, Jim Stegner.
Stegner is the painter in question and while the narrative develops around a series of violent incidents with Stegner at their center, there is a constant sense of unease on the part of our protagonist: he seems, even as he finds himself the prime suspect in two murders, to be constantly asking himself ‘how the hell did I end up here?’ That the murder victims are clearly very bad people does not exonerate the act of murder. Just as Dostoyevsky refuses to excuse Raskolnikov’s killing of the evil pawnbroker, Heller masterfully offers the victims’ backstory (they are brothers), in a way that muddies the moral waters, raising the conundrum of who exactly is qualified to be judge and executioner.
But beyond the story that propels this beguiling novel forward lie the ruminations of an artist. Stegner is an ‘outsider’ artist, celebrated for his iconoclastic view of the world. That his sudden notoriety as a murder suspect drives the prices of his works ever upward is deeply troubling to him. Heller paints Stegner as a serious, reflective man, one who feels a responsibility to his art and the most moving passages of this book revolve around those meditations on the creative process. For instance, as Stegner reflects, after rather quickly producing a painting he considers his best work:
“Nobody, not even artists, understand art. What speed has to do with it. How much work it takes, year after year, building the skills, the trust in the process, more work probably than any Olympic athlete ever puts in because it is twenty-four hours a day, even in dreams, and then when the skills and the trust are in place, the best work usually takes the least effort. Usually. It comes fast, it comes without thought, it comes like a horse running you over in the night. But. Even if people understand this, they don’t understand that sometimes it is not like that at all. Because the process has always been: craft, years and years; then faith; then letting go. But now, sometimes the best work is agony. Pieces put together, torn apart, rebuilt. Doubt in everything that has been learned, terrible crisis of faith, the faith that allowed it all to work. Oh God. And even then, through this, if you survive the halting pace, and the fever, sometimes you make the best work you have ever made. That is the part none of us understand.”
And of course it doesn’t hurt that during his downtime Stegner recharges by heading to the nearest trout stream, fly rod in hand. Author Heller is clearly a devoted angler and the three distinct threads of this lovely novel, the cat and mouse morality tale, the reflections on art and the time spent astream, work seamlessly together to create an engrossing, lyrical narrative that will entertain and provoke and perhaps, entice one to the nearest flowing waters to wet a line or simply do some ruminating of one’s own.
[Bill Lundgren is a writer and blogger, also a bookseller at Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine (“A Fiercely Independent Community Bookstore”). He keeps a bird named Ruby, and teaches at Southern Maine Community College.]