Family legacies are hell to outrun, especially when violence is entwined in the ancestral DNA. This month a new batch of novels offer modern twists on the ancient themes of family, duty, revenge, and justice. The most anticipated is Peter Heller’s The Painter (Knopf, $25), the Outside contributing editor’s follow-up to his bestselling The Dog Stars. Jim Stegner, the title character, is a forty-something artist struggling to remake his life in the Colorado backcountry following the death of his teenage daughter.
Trouble finds him in the person of Dellwood Siminoe, a hunter who’s mean as a sack of razors. Conflict ensues, and Stegner soon finds himself with the added burdens of both the law and Siminoe’s vengeful kin, who have a habit of showing up drunk, angry, and armed at Stegner’s favorite fishing holes. The Painter isn’t the postapocalyptic revelation that The Dog Stars was, but Heller creates in Stegner a more flawed, reflective, and fully realized protagonist than the pining loner at the center of his first novel.
A son’s duty to his father forms the backbone of Louis Bayard’s novel Roosevelt’s Beast (Holt, $27), a fictional play on Theodore Roosevelt’s 1914 expedition down Brazil’s River of Doubt. This isn’t a full record of that journey (for that, see Candice Millard’s classic The River of Doubt) but a fanciful what-if that imagines T.R. and his son Kermit captured by the Cinta Larga, a real-life tribe that shadowed the expedition as it floated the river.
Bayard, bestselling author of historical thrillers like The School of Night and The Pale Blue Eye, hangs the novel on Kermit’s battle to become something more than his father’s valet, an elusive goal for a son who lacks Teddy’s tallyho bluster. “Of all the Roosevelt children,” Bayard writes, “he was the least likely to force himself on the world’s attention.” Beast tends to run a little too J.J. Abrams–ish for my taste, what with all the strange killings in the jungle. “We are in a strange land, Kermit,” says the old man. “Should we not be braced for strange outcomes?” But Bayard offers his readers a fun ride right to the end.
There’s no escaping family, duty, or violence when you’re a member of the Kings clan of Loosewood Island, the lobstering dynasty at the center of Alexi Zentner’s gripping second novel, The Lobster Kings (Norton, $27). The Kings have been pulling bugs out of the water around Loosewood since the 1720s, and they’ve always policed the grounds on their own. When young tweakers from the next town over start poaching their prey, Cordelia and her father, local big man Woody, must battle for Loosewood and their livelihood.
The struggle continues even as the family business comes under fire, with Cordelia rising as Woody’s power declines. By laying Shakespearean themes over the culturally rich New England lobster grounds, Zentner, a former newspaperman and climber, produces a deeply satisfying novel that reveals what is required by and given to those who inherit a family’s legacy.