Life on canvas

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First Posted: 5/26/2014

Like a painting, our lives so too begin as a blank canvas, growing with every brushstroke of experience. While a minimal layer of strokes cover some canvases, others are covered in layers of paint so thick that one can follow the path of each occurrence.

Peter Heller, author of bestselling post-apocalyptic novel “The Dog Stars,” returns with his second novel, “The Painter” — a story of one man’s canvas and his second chance to repaint the future. The story, much like the canvas, showcases how experiences, whether few or many, good or bad, would remain incomplete without those brushstrokes.

Originally from New Mexico, our protagonist and professional artist Jim Stegner attempts to start over by moving to the Colorado countryside. On the outside looking in, Jim seems to be living the good life as he spends his days selling art, fly fishing, and enjoying the perks of celebrity status. Inside, however, Jim’s life is colored by a multitude of experiences so dark that his personal canvas has become a still life of desolation — one prompted by failed relationships and the brutal loss of his only daughter, Alce. Unfortunately, Jim’s troubled past is all too quickly becoming a part of his present. While his history of alcoholism has retreated, his rage remains rampant, spilling over into his newly created life. Eventually, however, Jim attempts to deal with his past head-on by returning to his home of Santa Fe.

The plot of the novel follows suit, as Jim becomes our guide — albeit one with a wayward moral compass — as we are introduced to the entire cast of characters, many of whom are neatly categorized as unruly men and divine women that attempt to save them. We come to learn that Jim, with a terrible temper and a past of similar variety, is as flawed as they come. Perhaps that is what is endearing about him. With all Jim’s vices, readers still hold out hope.

One of the best aspects of Heller’s work is his writing style, which employs deeply reflective internal dialogue that is fortified by its rhythm and strength, as seen in the following passage: “I never imagined something like that could be reflex, without thought: pulling out the .41 magnum, raising it to the man half turned on the stool, pulling the trigger. Point blank. […] How the shot echoed for hours inside the bar, inside my head. Echoed for years. I painted the moment, the explosion of colors, the faces.”

While there are times Jim does not necessarily learn, and therefore mature, from his past mistakes, the conclusion of the novel is not without its redemptive features. The overarching moral of the work reveals that while we cannot escape our past, we do retain the power to change our future.

‘The Painter’ by Peter Heller Rating: W W W W