Here’s the thing about independent bookstores, versus Amazon or Barnes and Noble, both of which have their place. But with an indie, really almost any decent indie bookstore, you can walk in with only the vaguest notion of what you want to read, and someone in the store can lead you to exactly what you never even guessed you were looking for.
That was my recent experience at Cellar Door Books in Riverside, CA, owned by Linda Sherman-Nurick. My husband and I stopped there on our way to Palm Desert a few weeks ago, hoping to find something great to read while we were vacationing in the desert. I had a very slim idea of what I wanted – something similar to Kent Haruf or Ivan Doig, something that would take place in the western part of the country and would have a particular narrative voice. That was what I told Linda.
Linda walked up and down her well-stocked shelves for a moment, then pulled out a book. “Read the first line,” she said. “Is this what you have in mind?”
The first line read:
I never imagined I would shoot a man. Or be a father. Or live so far from the sea.
The book was The Painter by Peter Heller, and I was hooked at that first line.
Briefly, Jim Stegner is an artist, living at the foot of the West Elk Mountains in Colorado. The reviewer in The New York Times observes, I think astutely, that “The Colorado and New Mexico landscapes evoked in The Painter give the novel a deeper than usual sense of place.” The setting is so much a part of the action that it is practically a character.
While he is known as a highly successful artist in the American West, Stegner has a difficult background of violence, divorce, and tragedy. The story opens with him witnessing an act of extreme animal cruelty which sets the novel’s action into motion.
The Painter is, first and foremost, a murder story. It is not really a murder mystery, as you can see, because the opening line gives you an idea about who our protagonist might be. It is also a story about life, about loss, about art, about love – and about fly fishing. Author Peter Heller holds an MFA in both fiction and poetry, which makes the writing lyrical, the story often moving into a contemplative mode that you rarely find in the suspense genre.
But have no doubt – there is plenty of suspense, as well as a darn good chase scene. There is also some beautiful language, as well as some interesting sociological riffs such as the following:
Why was I so hung up on anyone being brave? So what if 90 percent of artists, or people for that matter, were meek? Just wanting to get through the day without getting yelled at or run over? Just have a good meal. Most people wanted to do one thing today with a small portion of pleasure like maybe weed the garden and pick tomatoes, or make love to a spouse, or watch a favorite TV show. Maybe they wanted to sell a painting. So what? What did it matter to me?
Occasionally I found that these ruminations outside the story itself dragged it down a bit, but much of it was beautiful and often thought-provoking.
The information about art, the art industry, and specific paintings and painting styles was another diversion from the immediate story, and may put some people off. Personally, I enjoyed it, particularly since I could go to my iPad to look up paintings that are mentioned and see if I agreed with his descriptions.
The fly fishing is another story – I could have done without so much of it, but it is integral to both the story and the man, so don’t discount it.
I would never have known of this intellectually provocative, yet gripping, novel had I not happened upon Linda Sherman-Nurick and Cellar Door Books. Tomorrow – May 2 – is Independent Bookstore Day. If you don’t already know of a great bookstore near you, go to http://www.indiemap.bookweb.org, type in your city, state, and ZIP code, and find one. Your next favorite book may be waiting for you there!