Last year I was bothered by something I read in an online writers’ forum—that writing is not art. It wasn’t just the statement, but mainly that it was posted by a writer. If anything can help disprove that statement and prove that writing is indeed an art form, then Peter Heller’s THE PAINTER is it. This book is an expression from an artist about an artist. As the protagonists ponders, “Nobody, not even artists, understand art.”
THE PAINTER is the story of Jim Stegner: painter, father, lover. Human. The opening lines set the mood brilliantly: “I never imagined I would shoot a man. Or be a father. Or live so far from the sea.” Jim is a troubled man, wanting to be at peace with the world: seemingly always going in the opposite direction. He’s haunted, yet kind; brilliant, yet weak. He has a tough, enigmatic exterior, with a confused, sensitive interior. As he asks himself, “Can I say that I feel happy? First time in how long? No. Won’t say it. Shut up and inhale and drive.”
Heller’s writing provides a unique voice that is consistent throughout. It feels casual with its detailed descriptions: laid back, yet anxious to go. Some may define this writing as “stream of consciousness”; I prefer to label it as near-poetic. There are plenty of references to poetry throughout, including direct quotes from many poets. My favorite reference being a quote from C.S. Lewis. Don’t let that poetry reference fool you; there’s plenty of action. Heller’s character is not a docile painter of the “Great American Southwest Post-Expressionist Naïf”—his troubled past exponentiates into a near-catastrophic present. As the protagonist Jim Stegner prays, “Grant me, grant me, oh Lord, relief. From all my f*ckups.”
In the end, THE PAINTER is more about life than it is about art. But aren’t they synonymous? I think this in-book quote sums it up nicely: “What more really can be at stake except life itself, which is why maybe artists are always equating the two and driving everybody crazy by insisting that art is life.” So, if you want art, read this book. If you want insight into an artist’s soul, read this book. If you want pleasure in the literary, read this book. In other words, read this book.
Thank you to Knopf and Random House for providing this book for me to review.