Thursday, October 16, 2014

What we're reading: New Peter Heller

I have had Peter Heller's The Dog Stars on my list of "want to read" since it came out in 2012 to effusive critical praise, without ever actually managing to read it. Just before I went on vacation, I picked up a couple of novels from the new books shelf at the Central Library, without even noticing who wrote them, because I liked the titles and descriptions; and that's how I got hold of Heller's new book, The Painter.

Since its tone seemed serious, I put off reading it while on my trip, instead opting for lighter fare (a couple of YA novels, a cozy mystery series), so I finally cracked the book on Sunday night. It has held me in thrall ever since. In fact, it made me late to work on Tuesday, because I couldn't put it down until the mesmerizing chapter I was reading was over!

People are mentioning in reviews how Hemingway-esque the protagonist is, probably because Jim Stegner is a "manly man" who fly fishes and camps and is led by his temper into untidy brawls (and more) in addition to painting Expressionist masterpieces. But the writing style reminds me more of Cormac McCarthy, though not as stylized--and I don't know how it is possible to write prose that is both spare and lush at the same time, but it is. Heller breaks all the writing rules, with incomplete sentences and phrases strung together in a staccato line that perfectly delineate his subject, settings, and events. His descriptions of Jim Stegner's paintings make me desperately want to see them, but the descriptions are so powerfully explicit and detailed that I can almost picture them in my mind's eye well enough to paint them myself! (Though I'm sure they wouldn't have the panache and whimsy of a Stegner.)

Even the book design works in its favor. Usually a book is typeset with continuous paragraphs, only differentiating them by the indent at the beginning of each and the hard return at the end; but in this book, the designer (or perhaps the author in collaboration with the designer?) chose to put a full return of space in between each paragraph. What this does (whether intended or not) is give you a wide open feeling when you are reading it--it's almost like those spaces on the page give you permission to pause, to breathe, to feel a sense of the panoramic vistas of Colorado and New Mexico in front of which the action of this book takes place.

The Painter pairs thoughtful, philosophical musing about life's tragedies and how we react to them with breathless scenes of action worthy of the latest blockbuster thriller, and some of the best romance/relationship scenes I've read in a while (or ever). The protagonist's turns of phrase when observing the world around him are also clever and arresting--here's one example:
One of the things I had read about crows somewhere is that they are much smarter than their station in life. I mean, unlike other birds, it takes them about two hours every day to secure enough food to survive and the rest is play time, electives.... So crows must spend a lot of the day wondering what they are supposed to do now, what they are here for, and that seemed like a cruel existential dilemma for anyone who didn't have TV.
If you imagined the perfect combination of literary and popular fiction, this would be it. I was fascinated to the end, and I won't be delaying any longer in seeking out his first book!

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