Is Buddhism a thing in southern Colorado? I ask because there is a lot of Buddhism going around in The Painter. There is the seated buddha statue near Pim’s mansion; there is Stegner’s Doctor friend (“a very good ER doctor and a better fisherman”) who is Buddhist; and there is Stegner himself, wanting to “see things as they are”. Seems odd, and I can’t quite fit it into the story or the place.
While reading this I found myself thinking that it is a really good book, but I couldn’t quite figure out why. Still can’t. Partly, I guess, it was that the writing was intriguing: at times Heller does some faint but unmistakable Hemingway riffs: long sentences made from short clauses joined by “and”. And of course the fishing scenes can’t help but remind the reader of “Big, Two-Hearted River”. And Heller’s evocation of place, the mountains and valleys of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, is spot on. You get a feel for the vastness and the clarity of the air and the way the landscape changes with elevation. And, of course, there is the character of Stegner and the self-dug hole he finds himself in.
Looking back, there is really nothing much about Stegner that makes him a sympathetic character, except that when he commits mayhem it’s generally for a good reason, and if not a good reason, then an understandable one. I was all in favor of him beating the shit out of Dellwood for beating that horse: that put Stegman on my good side right off the bat. I had a little harder time with the subsequent Stegner / Dellwood interaction, though, and his exchange with Grant later wasn’t really Stegner’s fault, so I guess he gets a pass on that. We know, of course, and Irmina tells us and Stegner, that he is being driven by his grief and rage over his daughter, and so we are somewhat inclined to cut him a little more slack than we otherwise would.
I’m trying to keep spoilers to a minimum, so I’ll just say that I had a hard time with the ending of this book. Although Jason was a little more subtle than your ordinary vicious redneck, I just can’t accept that he would have done what he did at the end. That’s not how things would have ended in an actual blood feud (though having never been in an actual blood feud, I’m no expert). On the other hand, it made sense for Heller to leave the ending a little ambiguous: Stegner is about as broken a character as it’s possible to be and still be functional, so there weren’t going to be any happy endings. So the ending of the novel let’s Stegner stay broken but with maybe just a smidgen of hope and dread for the future.