Jim Stegner, 45, is a bereaved father who manages the loss of his daughter by externalizing his emotions, whether through drinking, painting, fishing, or violence. He is trying hard to understand his weight in the world: his effect, his responsibility, his capacity for endurance. He thinks he means well, and we tend to accept his arguments, and yet, death and destruction follow in his wake. Jim’s violent acts are always “justified” in some ways, since Jim repeatedly finds himself taking the role of vigilante against truly evil people. But as one of the supporting characters points out, “Jim… you know, we can’t just go around killing each other. Just saying.”
He doesn’t understand his choices himself:
I never imagined I would shoot a man. Or be a father. Or live so far from the sea. As a child, you imagine your life sometimes, how it will be. I never thought I would be a painter. That I might make a world and walk into it and forget myself. That art would be something I would not have any way of not doing.”
He blames himself for the consequences of what he does, even if his reactions were provoked or in self-defense, and he can’t shake the pain of it. Nor can he stop himself.
He expresses his tortured psyche through his art, and he has gained some renown as “a Great American Southwest Post-Expressionist Naif.” The darker his life gets, the better and closer to “truth” is his art, but that isn’t what drives him. He can no more curb the drive to visualize his interior mind than he can resist the urge to inhabit his sorrow. Because if he openly confronts his anguish, could he even bear it? And if he overcomes the sadness and the loss of his daughter, wouldn’t he lose her entirely?
Discussion: Although Jim is a shattered man, somewhere within him there is a strong pull toward hope as well as decency. He also has a profound appreciation of the land and its creatures, even as its beauty is constantly juxtaposed with the brutal ugliness of some of the people he encounters. His elegantly phrased observations portray “truth” as surely as his paintings must, admirably employing poetic construction in place of metaphor:
The afternoon is somber under cloud, then the edge tugs away and the water sparks in a sudden sweep of sunlight.”
Out the open double doors the mountain was catching the full brunt of the lowering sun. Every outcrop and rockslide, the quilt of the forests: spruce and aspen, juniper, oak, lit to sharper detail and warmed by the obeyed light. Sharpened and softened at the same time.”
But when he does use metaphor, it is exceptionally well done, as in this passage in which he succinctly captures not only his sense of the slowness of the passing of time, but the menace of the dangerous situation in which he finds himself:
What time was it? Would this day ever end? Time did that thing it does, when it uncurls and lengthens like a rattlesnake patiently sliding after a mouse.”
In some ways the writing may be too pretty – too much a focus on the medium can fend off intimacy. I didn’t connect as well with the pain of the protagonist as I might have – but then again, Jim himself was loathe to face his pain, only able to channel it into painting, or blot it out with drinking or fishing.
The action in this book moves from Colorado to New Mexico, and for evoking a sense of place and distilling a mood, few can match this poetic author.
Evaluation: Heller makes meditative heroes unforgettable through often resplendent prose, and thought-provoking themes. I would follow this author anywhere.
Note: This haunting story with its prismatic treatment of moral ambiguity and the nature of justice would be an excellent choice for book clubs.
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2014