I have been advised to cut to the chase, and get right down to brass tacks plot points in describing my new novel, Painter of the Heavens. Just one problem with that. It’s not that kind of a novel. It isn’t a formula crime potboiler and it isn’t a video game.
Atmosphere is almost a major character in this novel. I can try to describe the atmosphere, but it’s like the Blue Ridge Mountains; you really need to be there. For one thing the mood of the book keeps changing. We have scenes in sunlit Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and scenes in Lyle Chilton’s eerie, sprawling indie bookstore in an old house in the woods outside of town. We visit an overcrowded Christmas party in a cramped apartment (where an inexcusable faux pas takes place.) We ride on a high-jacked personal aircraft, encountering turbulence. We make passages through moonlit pine forests with only the great horned owl to see us. We attend an ear-splitting alternative rock concert in a Chapel Hill bar. (It is 1989, after all.) We see the artificial, unnatural, suburban master-planned community where newly-divorced Penny Sturdevant still resides in her unsold house. We veer off into the black lights of a rave club in the East End of London, England. (It is 1990 by that point.)
Some Brass Tacks
Painter of the Heavens is the story of a woman who has a love affair with a con artist. Penny is from a background of abject poverty. Even so, she has left her financially secure husband because he had become cold and distant. It was a leap of bravado for a sensitive soul like Penny. Just turning thirty, she is in transition in life, searching for what’s next. One day on a random whim she stops off at the Incunabula Bookstore. The manager there has a hypnotic appeal. Soon, they are dating.
For months Penny doesn’t know that Lyle has illegal plans, though from their first date the man’s personality is strange, to say the least. He is different from other men she has known, but then he is a poet, and a philosophical type. He seems a little eccentric, and later on a little suspicious. Over the course of the novel he becomes increasingly shady. Ultimately, he is quite a menacing figure. The point of view is all Penny’s; we don’t know his thoughts. The suspense of the novel is an unresolved question: Just how bad is this bad guy? Penny is often torn about whether to break off from him, but he can be loving, and fulfilling, in ways that seem genuine. Is his dark side compartmentalized in an otherwise loving mind? Always something emerges to keep their affair rolling forward a little while longer.
The Mind of the Charlatan
I researched the subject of con artists. The psychology there is frightening. These are men and women who can crash an upscale party, smelling bad and behaving boorishly, and within an hour everybody is writing them ten thousand dollar checks. An almost supernatural capacity for manipulation seems to be part of the picture. At the outer limits of the experience we are dealing with the psychopath.
Lyle Chilton may or may not be that extreme. He is an indie bookstore manager who has been supplementing his income over the years by forging movie star autographs. He has a genius for forgery. As a child he faked his father’s signature on report cards. No one has ever questioned Lyle’s phony holographs. Now, he has gone for the big score, in an act of grand outrageousness that maybe only a pathological mind would attempt. It is a forgery of a historical figure, which could sell for millions at auction. It is perfection in forgery. But now Lyle needs an accomplice. Someone other than a guy who has been selling bogus autographs for years has to come forward with the discovery of the big one. His eyes turn to Penny.
A phony letter and a genuine love. Humor, pathos, danger, and two of what Dickens called “lives of quiet desperation” come together in my debut novel, Painter of the Heavens. Experience the first 25 pages for free at the Amazon page . Just click “Look Inside.”
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– Bart Stewart