Tuesday, August 08, 2017

What we're reading: Peter Heller

Since I first discovered one of the novels of Peter Heller, I have watched impatiently for others to be published, and this week I was rewarded by discovering he has a new book out. It's called Celine, and it paradoxically shares something with his two other novels; it's nothing like them. That's what I enjoyed when I first discovered him, because I read The Painter first, and then backtracked to his first book, The Dog Stars, and, while I loved them equally, they were so different in theme one from the other that it was hard to imagine they had been written by the same person. Celine likewise takes a different direction.

The Painter is narrated by a "manly man" who fly fishes and goes camping and gets into brawls...and also paints Expressionist masterpieces. The writing style reminded me of Cormac McCarthy; it was both spare and lush, if you can put both of those words in the same descriptive sentence. Heller breaks a lot of writing "rules," which irritates some people, with his incomplete sentences and phrases strung together in staccato lines. But his prose in this case perfectly delineates his subject, settings and events, and the book is a weird but totally workable marriage of musings about life's tragedies paired with action scenes worthy of the latest blockbuster thriller.

The Dog Stars is a post-apocalyptic tale about one man who survives a flu pandemic that kills everyone else he knows and loves. He lives with his dog, Jasper, and a curmudgeonly survivalist guy in the hangar of a small abandoned airport. I almost didn't pick it up, because I'm so sick of dystopic and post-apocalyptic tales after the surfeit of them published for young adults in the past five years. But I'm so glad I did; despite the horrifying nature of the world after the pandemic, the story is all about grace, hope, and love, in the midst of despair, fatalism, and uncertainty. Both the writing and the story honestly left me breathless.

His new novel, Celine, goes off on yet another tangent. First of all, the protagonist this time is a woman, who comes from the absolute upper crust of American society, but who has not let that baggage deter her from creating an unusual life for herself. Celine Watkins is in her late sixties, suffers from emphysema from long years of too much smoking, and is married to Pete, a laconic guy from Maine with unexpected depths. Celine is a private investigator who specializes in finding lost family, especially focusing on cold cases, and her success rate exceeds that of the FBI. A young woman named Gabriela comes to her with a request to determine for sure whether her father, a famous photographer who disappeared from Yellowstone about 20 years ago, is really dead. There were several anomalies surrounding his disappearance and also with the investigation into it afterward, and Gabriela has a feeling that she doesn't know everything there is to know. So Celine and Pete borrow an RV from Celine's son, Hank, and take off for the wilds of Montana/Wyoming to solve the case.

This book's affect is more mystery than literary fiction, and yet all the assets that Heller brings to the table are there: the lyrical, evocative descriptions of nature, and the solid, quirky characterizations that made his other books such compelling reads. I also liked the gradual (and riveting) revelation of the back stories and the present day situations of both the protagonist and her client. If you like a book with characters that have both heft and depth, Celine is for you.

Before Heller started writing novels, he was an award-winning adventure writer. His nonfiction titles include The Whale Warriors: The Battle at the Bottom of the World to Save the Planet's Largest MammalsHell or High Water: Surviving Tibet's Tsangpo River; and Kook: What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life, and Catching the Perfect Wave. He is also is a contributing editor at Outside magazine, Men's Journal, and National Geographic Adventure, and a regular contributor to Bloomberg Businessweek. If his nonfiction is as compellingly and beautifully written as his fiction, I may be tempted!

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