Sunday, March 19, 2017

Celine by Peter Heller

Hardcover, 352 pages Pub March 7th 2017 by Knopf Publishing Group ISBN13: 9780451493897

Peter Heller is completely his own man, his work unlike anyone else’s. Almost everything we love about a Peter Heller novel is here in spades: descriptions so fresh we can smell the creek water, glimpses of people so painterly a photograph would ruin the image, a manly strength and confidence that gives his main character a tiny swagger when confronting mother bears, bad-ass motorcyclists, or CIA operatives with orders where their hearts used to be.

Heller places a woman at the helm of the story this time, and his Celine is exceptional. She is too big a character to describe here; Heller allows her depths to unfurl slowly, each mention of her like fine dining--surprising, unusual, uniquely satisfying. She is too daring a character to be created out of whole cloth, so she must be modeled on someone Heller has bulked up for the occasion. One feels slightly jealous such a character exists outside of our experience.

Celine is a private investigator. She works with her husband, Peter, who hails from Maine and says “ai-yuh” to indicate agreement. “My Watson,” Celine suggests, “or I may be his Watson, but nobody knows because he doesn’t say much.” Celine doesn’t do infidelity or corporate intrigue, the usual PI work. She looks for missing children, missing parents, or helps those who are desperate or destitute. Her focus makes us wonder what got her into the ‘family’ business exclusively.

This felt to me to be the most personal of Heller’s novels. The Penguin Random House website tells us
Born and raised in New York, Heller attended high school in Vermont and Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Winner of the Michener fellowship, he received an MFA in both fiction and poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
He is writing what he knows, and we are there, listening to his voice, sense of humor, and perceptions when Celine and Peter sit around a daytime campfire outside the shack of L.B. Chicksaw Chillingsworth, the tracker. It’s maybe not as plausible as Heller makes it seem, but is warming, interesting, and plausible enough.

The detail that 68-yr-old Celine has emphysema from a former four-pack-a-day habit added something to this story. It added realism: we often read stories of talented investigators who are strong, clever, and attractive. We don’t often see the limitations under which most folks labor. This handicapping serves the imagination of readers: Celine is closer to readers’ world and all the more admirable for it. A protagonist with a flaw makes for more interesting pursuits. Besides, her skill set with a pistol is enviable and more than makes up for not being able to run away from bad guys.

The attention Heller lavishes on guns is not so much indulgent as generous. He is able to impart a bit of his fascination to us, his readers, particularly if we know a bit about the pieces he describes. He is entirely correct in observing that, as precision instruments, they are gorgeous pieces of work, and he shares cleaning, oiling, and polishing techniques as though we were sitting beside him, watching him work. Being able to shoot well seems a communicative skill useful in today's world, able to make points that words simply can’t.

My favorite character by far was the rarely-speaking Pete, or Pa, as Celine often called him. Celine and Peter had a fierce bonding going on, so thoughtful are they of one another. Pete’s intensity of care was entirely necessary to someone with Celine’s health history, for she experienced terrible moments of not being able to breathe, and Heller was able to convey to us Pete’s desperation to find help. My least favorite character was Gabriella, a character Heller wasn’t as successful in fleshing out. He almost got there, but I never had a sense of her as an adult woman with a child of her own rather than as a teen who had lost her father.

The standout difference between this book and Heller’s earlier works, each of which have been different from one another in terms of genre-type, is that this book is longer. The length did not improve the experience for this reader. The novel could have been pared further, words rearranged for elegance or streamlining, but Heller's work doesn't strain. There is something to be said for not taking oneself or one's work too seriously. Regardless, I thought this a wonderful mystery/thriller and would gladly enter into conversation with Heller again. His painterly attention to detail, fulsome imagination, and his locales are hard to pass up.

It turns out that the novel is a thinly-disguised memoriam of Heller's mother, who sounds like a very special person. Two articles explain the connection is here and here.

I listened to the audio of this book, read by Kimberly Farr and produced by Penguin Random House Audio. Farr managed some of Maine's language peculiarities, though she added a Katherine Hepburn-like upper class drawl to Pete that became endearing only eventually. He was IV-educated after all, so perhaps he could claim the blue blood accent. Celine came through perfectly, as Heller had intended.

Below find a short excerpt from the audio reading by Kimberly Farr:

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