The Painter, by Peter Heller
It’s always interesting to read the second novel by authors whose first was highly praised. For various reasons too numerable to name here, there’s something of a sophomore jinx afoot that trips up writers who receive literary praise perhaps too quickly in their careers. This is the case, I think with The Painter, and with Peter Heller.
Where The Dog Star established Heller as a writer with a consistent, wickedly humorous voice, as a formidable scene setter, and writer with philosophical underpinnings, this second novel shows those strengths fraying a bit. He’s adopting a voice here that isn’t always his own; he toys with his sentence structures, their nature that of Hemingway and Raymond Carver, and the effect is a bit clumsy. However in the book’s second half he returns to vestiges of his first novel’s voice and overarching sensibility, and this is where his story becomes compelling.
Heller’s protagonist, Jim Stegner, is an unschooled but talented painter who struggles with drink, with womanizing, and with his temper. These traits have led him to be a killer, although Heller goes to great pains to let us know these acts are not premeditated. They’ve also, in accordance with these United States’ innate streak of violence, allowed him to be a cult figure – a talent around whom one feels it necessary to walk on eggshells. (For what it’s worth, this trait is to this reader and social observer the cause of a hollowness within the national psyche.) Stegner wants atonement for his acts, but he doesn’t know how to go about that. So Heller must allow Stegner to be the subject of retributive violence, which allows the painter, as might happen to a pre-adolescent child, to have atonement forced on him. Stegner is as a person and as a literary creation, a mess. Perhaps Heller intends him to be a faux Hemingway: hard drinking, bullying and a crybaby when those tables are turned on him. Stegner doesn’t seem to have the backbone about which an anti-hero’s fatal flaws can be built, though; he’s too much at the whims of fate for that. Heller tries to create philosophical depth for Stegner, but these attempts ring hollow. What he has created in Stegner, however, is a depiction of an instinctive artist, something the American psyche always seems to want from those of an artistic bent: talent and success untrammeled by subjecting the artist’s potential to training and the lessons of culture and history. That Stegner is, in the end, a talented but pitiful figure, should tell the reader something very important: instinct that refuses at least a small measure of acculturation eventually become debased.
That I can write all these things about Heller – and Stegner – speaks to the talent that still lies untapped in Heller, who may yet become a great voice in American literature.
My rating: 15 of 20 stars