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Authors: Peter Heller

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The Painter: A Novel

BOOK: The Painter: A Novel
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ALSO BY PETER HELLER

FICTION

The Dog Stars

NONFICTION

Kook: What Surfing Taught Me About Love,
Life, and Catching the Perfect Wave

The Whale Warriors: The Battle at the Bottom of
the World to Save the Planet’s Largest Mammals

Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet’s Tsangpo River

Set Free in China: Sojourns on the Edge

THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK
PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF

Copyright © 2014 by Peter Heller

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC, New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, Penguin Random House companies.

www.aaknopf.com

Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint previously published material:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company: Excerpts from “Burnt Norton” and “Little Gidding” from
Four Quartets
by T. S. Eliot, copyright © 1936 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, copyright renewed 1964 by T. S. Eliot. Copyright © 1942 by T. S. Eliot, copyright renewed 1970 by Esme Valerie Eliot. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved.

Random House: Excerpt from “The Panther” from
Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke
by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell, translation copyright © 1982 by Stephen Mitchell. Reprinted by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Heller, Peter, [date]
The painter : a novel / Peter Heller.—First Edition.
pages cm
HC ISBN
978-0-385-35209-3 (hardback);
EBK ISBN
978-0-385-35208-6
1. Artists—Fiction. 2. Abstract expressionism—Fiction. 3. Ex-convicts—Fiction. 4. Life change events—Fiction. 5. Psychological fiction. I. Title.
PS
3608
.E
454
P
35 2014
813’.6—dc23 2013045522

Jacket image:
New Mexico Landscape
(detail) by Jean Parrish. Private Collection / Phillips, Fine Art Auctioneers, New York, USA / The Bridgeman Art Library

Jacket design by Kelly Blair

v3.1

To all the artists in my family

And to Jim Wagner and Nancy Carter

And Kim

Contents
BOOK ONE

Mayhem
OIL ON LINEN
40 X 50 INCHES
COLLECTION OF THE ARTIST

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.

My own father was a logger, very gentle, who never fought with anyone.

I could not have imagined that my daughter would be beautiful and strong like my mother. Whom she would never meet. Or that one afternoon at the Boxcar in Taos I would be drinking Jim Beam with a beer back and Lauder Simms would be at the next stool
nursing a vodka tonic, probably his fourth or fifth, slurping the drink in a way that made ants run over my neck, his wet eyes glancing over again and again. The fucker who had skated on a certain conviction for raping a twelve year old girl in his movie theater downtown, looking at me now, saying,

“Jim, your daughter is coming up nice, I like seeing her down at the theater.”

“Come again?”

“Long legged like her mom, I mean not too skinny.”

“What?”

“I don’t mean too skinny, Jim. I mean just—” His leer, lips wet with tonic. “She’s real interested in movies. Everything movies. I’m gonna train her up to be my little projectionist—”

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. The concussion inside the windowless room. Or how everything explodes like the inside of a dream and how Johnny, my friend, came lunging over the bar, over my arm, to keep me from pulling the trigger again. Who saved my life in a sense because the man who should have died never did. How the shot echoed for hours inside the bar, inside my head. Echoed for years.

I painted that moment, the explosion of colors, the faces.

How regret is corrosive, but one of the things it does not touch is that afternoon, not ever.

CHAPTER ONE

I

An Ocean of Women
OIL ON CANVAS
52 X 48 INCHES

My house is three miles south of town. There are forty acres of wheatgrass and sage, a ditch with a hedgerow of cottonwoods and willows, a small pond with a dock. The back fence gives on to the West Elk Mountains. Right there. They are rugged and they rise up just past the back of my place, from sage into juniper woods, then oak brush, then steep slopes of black timber, spruce and fir, and outcrops of rock and swaths of aspen clinging to the shoulders of the ridges. If I walk a few miles south, up around the flank of Mount Lamborn, I am in the Wilderness, which runs all the way to the Curecanti above Gunnison, and across to Crested Butte.

From the little ramada I look south to all those mountains and east to the massif of Mount Gunnison. All rock and timber now
in August. There’s snow up there all but a few months a year. They tell me that some years the snow never vanishes. I’d like to see that.

If I step out in front of the small house and look west it is softer and drier that direction: the gently stepping uplift of Black Mesa where the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River cuts through; other desert mesas; the Uncompahgre Plateau out beyond it all, hazy and blue.

This is my new home. It’s kind of overwhelming how beautiful. And little Paonia, funny name for a village out here, some old misspelling of Peony. Nestled down in all this high rough country like a train set. The North Fork of the Gunnison runs through it, a winding of giant leafy cottonwoods and orchards, farms, vineyards. A good place I guess to make a field of peace, to gather and breathe.

Thing is I don’t feel like just breathing.

Sofia pulls up in the Subaru she calls Triceratops. It’s that old. I can hear the rusted out muffler up on the county road, caterwauling like a Harley, hear the drop in tone as it turns down the steep gravel driveway. The downshift in the dip and dinosaur roar as it climbs again to the house. Makes every entrance very dramatic, which she is.

She is twenty-eight. An age of drama. She reminds me of a chicken in the way she is top-heavy, looks like she should topple over. I mean her trim body is small enough to support breasts the size of tangerines and she is grapefruit. It is not that she is out of proportion, it’s exaggerated proportion which I guess fascinates
me. I asked her to model for me five minutes after meeting her. That was about three months ago. We were standing in line in the tiny hippy coffee shop—Blue Moon, what else?—the only place in town with an espresso machine. She was wearing a short knit top and she had strong arms, scarred along the forearms the way someone who has worked outside is scarred, and a slightly crooked nose, somehow Latin. She looked like a fighter, like me. Sofia noticed the paint splattered on my cap, hands, khaki pants.

“Artist,” she said. It wasn’t a question.

Her brown eyes which were flecked with green roved over my head, clothes, and I realized she was cataloguing the colors in the spatters.

“Exuberant,” she said. “Primitive. Outsider—in quotes.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I went to RISD for a year but dropped out.”

Then her eyes went to the flies stuck in the cap.

“Artist fisherman,” she said. “Cool.”

She asked how long I’d been here, I said two weeks, she said, “Welcome. Sofia,” and stuck out her hand.

I said I needed models.

She cocked her head and measured me with one eye. Held it way past politeness.

“Nude?”

“Sure.”

“How much?”

Shrug. “Twenty bucks an hour?”

“I’m trying to decide if you are a creep. You’re not a violent felon are you?”

“Yes. I am.”

A smile trembled across her face. “Really?”

I nodded.

“Wow. What’d you do?”

“I shot a man in a bar. You’re not going to back out the door like in a horror movie are you?”

She laughed. “I was thinking about it.”

“My second wife did that when she found out.”

BOOK: The Painter: A Novel
8.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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