Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Painting Through Plot Twists

When I'm on a reading jag, as I usually am in the summer, I inevitably detect odd connections between dissimilar books.  Nothing about the tone of the narrator and protagonist of Peter Heller's novel The Painter would be mistaken for that of Courtney Maum's I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You.  The writing style and the plot are nothing alike, but both are the story of artists who experience a tension between what they want to paint and what sells.

Jim Stegner, the bearded, outdoorsy protagonist of Heller's novel, has made his mark as a painter in the Southwest--but he seems an unlikely success. A recovering alcoholic still reeling from the death of his teenage daughter, he opts for a reclusive life, escaping alone to fish. He's served time for attempted murder of an alleged pedophile who makes egregiously inappropriate remarks about the daughter, and then after conflict with a hunting guide who abuses horses, Stegner is the number one suspect in the man's death.  He gets out of town and heads to Santa Fe to complete a commission his agent has agreed to, painting the two young daughters of a wealthy patron, not the kind of art he has in mind.

In the real mystery and conflict of the novel, it isn't a whodunnit. Instead, readers find themselves pulling for Stegner (whom his neighbors call Hemingway) not just to avoid a return to prison but to get his life back on track.

I had read Heller's earlier novel The Dog Stars, an even darker post-apocolyptic novel of a man's attempt to survive after disaster has decimated the population of the country, possibly the world. That novel's main character, also a fisherman, is also torn between his desire for companionship and his mistrust of other people.

Courtney Maum's novel I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, on the surface, bears no similarities to The Painter except a main character, an artist experiencing commercial success in a style he finds least appealing to him. Richard Haddon, a British artist educated in the States and married to a beautiful French woman, experiences the seven-year-itch as their romantic marriage has settled into the day-to-day normalcy of parenthood, and he gets caught up into an affair.

He has idealistic dreams the kind of art he wants to paint but ends up producing a series of "keyhole" paintings of rooms in his life.  The one painting that sells is the one he least wishes to relinquish--a painting of a blue bear he completed for their baby daughter, a sentimental favorite for him and his wife.

His wife Anne-Laure, aware of the affair--which the other woman broke off to marry someone else--finds a letter from the woman during a visit to her parents, tells her parents everything, and sends Richard away.  During the time away from her, he develops an unlikely friendship with a British fellow traveler--happily married--and spends time with his own elderly parents, who also give him a glimpse into the tenderness of their long marriage.

He goes to great lengths--often in awkward situations--to try to save his own marriage.  In the meantime, he comes up with his an idea for a controversial art exhibit in response to Bush's attack on Iraq, such a departure from his keyhole paintings his agent allows, even encourages him to seek another venue--where he sets up washing machines to launder letters--solicited from people everywhere--in oil.

Maum balances Richard's angst with humor, allowing readers to hope for his success without making his wife the villain in the story. It's so easy to like this goofy, flawed man that I found myself hoping Anne-Laure would give the poor guy a chance--with or without the painting of the blue bear.


No comments: