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The Other: A Novelby David Guterson
Synopses & Reviews
From the author of the best-selling Snow Falling on Cedars, a dazzling new novel about youth and idealism, adulthood and its compromises, and two powerfully different visions of what it means to live a good life.
John William Barry has inherited the pedigree — and wealth — of two of Seattle's elite families; Neil Countryman is blue-collar Irish. Nevertheless, when the two boys meet in 1972 at age sixteen, they're brought together by what they have in common: a fierce intensity and a love of the outdoors that takes them, together and often, into Washington's remote backcountry, where they must rely on their wits — and each other — to survive.
Soon after graduating from college, Neil sets out on a path that will lead him toward a life as a devoted schoolteacher and family man. But John William makes a radically different choice, dropping out of college and moving deep into the woods, convinced that it is the only way to live without hypocrisy. When John William enlists Neil to help him disappear completely, Neil finds himself drawn into a web of secrets and often agonizing responsibility, deceit, and tragedy — one that will finally break open with a wholly unexpected, life-altering revelation.
Riveting, deeply humane, The Other is David Guterson's most brilliant and provocative novel to date.
"Guterson (Snow Falling on Cedars) runs out of gas mulling the story of two friends who take divergent paths toward lives of meaning. A working-class teenager in 1972 Seattle, Neil Countryman, a 'middle of the pack' kind of guy and the book's contemplative narrator, befriends trust fund kid John William Barry — passionate, obsessed with the world's hypocrisies and alarmingly prone to bouts of tears — over a shared love of the outdoors. Guterson nicely draws contrasts between the two as they grow into adulthood: Neil drifts into marriage, house, kids and a job teaching high school English, while John William pulls an Into the Wild, moving to the remote wilderness of the Olympic Mountains and burrowing into obscure Gnostic philosophy. When John William asks for a favor that will sever his ties to 'the hamburger world' forever, loyal Neil has a decision to make. Guterson's prose is calm and pleasing as ever, but applied to Neil's staid personality it produces little dramatic tension. Once the contrasts between the two are set up, the novel has nowhere to go, ultimately floundering in summary and explanation. (June)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
David Guterson caught everybody's attention in 1994 with his best-selling first novel, "Snow Falling on Cedars," a fierce love story wrapped around a suspenseful murder trial. But that intricately plotted book seems more and more an anomaly for this Seattle writer. Since "Snow Falling," he's focused exclusively on woodland loners, alienated figures grasping for spiritual transcendence, driven into... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) the wild. In "East of the Mountains" (1999), a retired heart surgeon heads into the Columbia Basin to take control of his death rather than suffer through the final stages of colon cancer. "Our Lady of the Forest" (2003) describes a sexually abused teenager high on forest mushrooms who receives a message from the Virgin Mary. And now, in "The Other," Guterson has written about a privileged young man who renounces modern society, embraces Gnosticism and disappears into the Olympic Peninsula. Millions of readers drawn to Jon Krakauer's "Into the Wild," the nonfiction adventure story about Christopher McCandless, will find here another deeply considered tragedy of social alienation and hubris. But Guterson has set himself a kind of literary survival challenge. This is a novel carrying dangerously low provisions of suspense. Its heavy reliance on introspection and natural description will starve readers hungry for more of a plot. It's a testament to Guterson's sensitive, lush prose that the novel makes it out alive. We learn almost everything that happens in "The Other" in the first chapter. But for the 50-year-old narrator, trying to understand why this experience took place and what it means has been a lifelong project. Neil Countryman (the allegorical name is a bit heavy-handed) comes from a large, extended family of carpenters, solid middle-class citizens of Seattle. One day back in 1972, while running in a high school track meet, he noticed that "this guy, right here, running next to me, is a version of me." Recalling that day 34 years later, he tells us that his "doppelganger" was John William Barry, scion of Washington's wealthiest family, a clan that exhibits all the bitterness and infighting you might expect from such privileged people. Though they're from opposite sides of the tracks, Neil and John William begin an intense friendship that revolves around getting high, committing little acts of vandalism and hiking in the forest. "We were mountaineers at an early and reckless age," Neil writes. "What we liked best was to walk where there were no roads or trails for as many days as possible, or to walk in country little visited and unmentioned in guidebooks, like the drainage of Depot Creek, northeast of Mount Redoubt, or the valley of Luna Creek on the north side of the Picket Range." On a two-week trip "off the map," they get so lost (probably because they're so high) that they almost starve to death and poison themselves eating carrion and noxious leaves. But their experience in the "primeval American forest" gives the boys a profoundly unsettling insight: They emerge from the woods with a "lonely and acute perception of the organized social world as a pathetic illusion." That conviction resonates strongly with John William, who has already, as a high-school student, become a devotee of Gnosticism, which he advocates with alarming obsessiveness. While Neil drifts through college and eventually settles down, John William rages against the entrapment of materialism, argues for the glory of suicide and finally carves out a secret lair in the woods, where he lives for seven years before dying and bequeathing $440 million to Neil. An opening chapter packed with action like that might suggest we're off to a number of interesting places, but Guterson doesn't want to go anywhere else. Instead, he wants to understand this remarkable encounter between these two different but oddly sympathetic young men. "Why were we friendly, John William and I?" Neil asks himself, and that becomes the crux of the story as Neil wonders if he should feel guilty or trustworthy for enabling his friend's deadly isolation. For the rest of the novel, he combs through this material, filling in new details and memories, struggling to understand what inflamed John William with such self-destructive fervor. Guterson has long been interested in the distorting effects of the modern news media, and Neil's discomfort with the glare of publicity ignited by his inheritance runs throughout the story. After the news of John William's $440-million bequest, "people began to come out of the woodwork," Neil complains — from John William's old girlfriend to his high-school English teacher. All their stories are absorbing, elaborately colored with guilt, self-justification and a desperation to "solve" the mystery of this young man. Was he sexually repressed? Clinically depressed? Paranoid? Was he burdened by some spiritual insight that allowed him to see the world more clearly than the rest of us? Was he "too much the young genius"? Or was he merely consumed by his own megalomania? There's evidence to support any of these explanations, and yet each of them feels too easy, too neat, to Neil, who's haunted by the memory of his friend's most naked request: "I want peace ... so help me out." As he's shown before, Guterson can write long passages of gorgeous, haunting description and introspection, but this is a novel that withholds much. John William remains a cipher, and so, frankly, does the narrator, who describes his own happy family members but not enough to bring them to life. The most gripping section, by far, comes dangerously late — too late for readers who will find the bulk of the novel too still and ruminative. It's a conversation, or rather an extended monologue delivered by John William's dying father. He describes for Neil the toxic family life that his son, "the boy wonder," was forced to endure. There's real drama, heartbreak and psychological insight in this chapter, which promises to solve everything. But then Guterson pulls back and insists on the inexplicable nature of John William's tragedy. "Maybe the truth is that truth is too complicated," Neil says. "The answer is lost in the maelstroms of consciousness." For a storyteller, that's the harrowing wilderness, but Guterson is a determined explorer. Ron Charles is a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World. He can be reached at charlesr(at symbol)washpost.com. Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[P]hilosophically provocative and psychologically astute....When a novelist scores as popular a breakthrough as Guterson did with Snow Falling on Cedars, a long shadow is cast over subsequent efforts. Here, he succeeds in outdistancing that shadow." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"[An] excellent novel, as humane as it is compelling." Philadelphia Inquirer
"It's hard for the reader to understand why Mr. Guterson...would want to reinvent such a well-known and well-told story. And while he has created an engaging enough voice for his narrator, Neil Countryman, much of his novel feels derivative and overly familiar." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"[T]hose seeking an honest study of 1970s American youth that looks to answer the questions we ask ourselves about — concerning our identities and what it means to exist — will be spellbound..." BookReporter.com
"[A] moving portrait of male friendship....
"This is a novel carrying dangerously low provisions of suspense. Its heavy reliance on introspection and natural description will starve readers hungry for more of a plot. It's a testament to Guterson's sensitive, lush prose that the novel makes it out alive." Ron Charles, The Washington Post Book World
"Guterson sometimes gets lost in his own descriptive thickets at the expense of story; at a mere 272 pages, The Other feels dawdly and overwritten. It's well-crafted and tasteful to a fault, but there's too much digression and not enough discretion here." The Portland Oregonian
"Much of this story is mesmerizing, even heartbreaking....The Other stayed with this reader for days after finishing the book." Seattle Times
From the author of the bestselling Snow Falling on Cedars comes a compelling new novel about youth and idealism, adulthood and its compromises, and two powerfully different visions of what it means to live a good life.
About the Author
David Guterson is the author of the novels Snow Falling on Cedars, East of the Mountains, and Our Lady of the Forest, as well as a story collection, The Country Ahead of Us, The Country Behind. A PEN/Faulkner Award winner, he is a cofounder of Field's End, an organization for writers in Washington State.
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