The Painter contains many of the elements found in The Dog Stars; Heller's outstanding grasp of the natural world distinguishes him from many of the other literary fiction writers out there, and his characters are sharp. Once again his main character is a man haunted by the past. However, this new novel doesn't delve into the end of the world and it reads like a literary thriller. The Painter tells the story of Jim Stegner, a man with a violent past (he killed a man) who channels his darkness into his art. He's gained some prestige in painting the Southwest and lives a quiet life of painting and fly-fishing, where Heller's great nature writing again sparkles. When Jim witnesses an act of brutality, though, he's again trapped in a world of violence and retribution.
Here's the story of a moral man fighting against his own darkness and that of the world around him. In that sense, a man vs nature and man vs man sense, The Painter feels like an old school novel of simply great storytelling that revolves around classic themes. I really like this approach. I sometimes get tired by tongue-in-cheek writing and cleverness and authorial irony. Peter Heller doesn't need to rely on these tricks. Here's a novel with a strong character, a compelling plot, and beautiful writing. What more do you need?