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.)
"[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
"[I]f you love Guterson's often meandering yet eloquent style, The Other will fill you up as much as a good burger." USA Today
"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....[T]he voice of Neil Countryman is that of a good, thoughtful man coming into middle-class, middle-aged fullness, and his recollections of life in Seattle have a wonderful richness and texture." Bruce Barcott, The New York Times Book Review
"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.
Reading Group Guide
1. Neil describes John William at sixteen as “The rich kid who hates and loves himself equally. The contrarian who hears his conscience calling in the same way schizophrenics hear voices, so that, for him, theres no not listening” [p. 10]. Have you encountered people like John William in your own life? In literature? What makes him a believable character, rather than a stereotype?
2. Does Neil also represent a familiar type or character? What makes him interesting or appealing to you? To John William? What distinctive characteristics (strengths and flaws alike) inform the way he tells John Williams story? Consider the qualities that Neil admires in John William in contrast to how he describes himself.
3. Neil and John William are brought together by their love of the outdoors and in particular for hiking in unmapped areas. Does John William spur Neil to take risks he otherwise would avoid? What aspects of their feelings about risk come to light when they get lost in the forest [pp. 2934]? In what ways do their attitudes about the adventure echo their feelings about their lives in general?
4. To what extent do John Williams activities at Reed [pp. 7083] as well as his decision to drop out of college reflect the cultural and social milieu of the 1970s? Does Cindys rejection of him mark a significant turning point for John William, or does it simply reinforce his perceptions of the world?
5. How does his upbringing affect John William? Would he have turned out differently if Ginnie had remained with the family? Does her decision to leave make her the villain of the story? Are there aspects of her conduct that evoke your empathy or sympathy? Is Rand oblivious or indifferent to his sons problems or is he incapable of dealing with them? How do Neils portraits of them change and deepen as the novel unfolds? Does he become more accepting of the Barrys flaws, and if so, why?
6. Throughout The Other, there are references to Gnosticism, a philosophical and religious movement that emerged during the early Christian era. A central theme of its teaching is the world is imperfect, but that each of us has a divine spark within that can ultimately free us from the evils of material world. Does John Williams obsession with Gnosticism enhance your understanding of his motivations and behavior? What other references to literature and philosophy in the novel illuminate the themes Guterson is exploring? Discuss, for example, the references to Emily Dickinson and Thoreau [p. 86], to Robert Frost [passim], and to Rudyard Kiplings “The Miracle of Purun Bhagat” [p. 167].
7. What effect does Neil achieve by alternating accounts of his own experiences with his reports on John William? How do their encounters as they grow older illustrate Neils contention that “In a friendship, you dont so much change terms as observe terms changing” [p.112]?
8. How do you feel about Neils complicity in enabling John William to escape from the real world? What moral imperatives underlie his actions? Is he guilty of betraying the fundamental ethical obligations he has as a member of society?
9. In his course Nature in Literature, Neil tells his students, “poetry and nature are occasions for introspection, but not necessarily for happiness” [p. 28]. Is John William seduced by a naïve, romantic view of the relationship between man and nature? Is he prepared for life in the wilderness? What does he learn about his strengths and limitations as he struggles with natures unpredictable, difficult, and often cruel challenges?
10. Does his flight from civilization bring John William the spiritual purity he is searching for? Could he have found another way to express his antipathy to the hypocrisy he sees in the ordinary world? Do you think that he knowingly set out on a path to self-destruction?
11. Is the relationship between Neil and John William a healthy one? What emotional satisfaction does it provide for each of them? Does Neils role in John Williams life influence his behavior as husband, father, and teacher?
12. Was Neil ultimately right to keep John Williams secret for so long? How do you think John Williams mother and father would answer?
13. Neil writes, “In the newspaper reports on the hermit of the Hoh, an abiding derangement is the heart of the matter. Thats wrong” [p. 112]. Does Neils account of what happens to John William justify this point of view? Would a more objective observer draw the same conclusion from the evidence Neil provides?
14. How does The Other compare to other accounts, either fiction or nonfiction, about people who have exiled themselves from society? If you have read Into the Wild (or have seen the movie), what similarities do you see between John William and Chris McCandless? Discuss the diverse reasons, either rational or not, a person might have for abandoning a comfortable life for one filled with risk and danger. Discuss how Gutersons decision to tell such a story in the form of a novel differs from Krakauers nonfiction approach.
15. This is a book chiefly about a friendship between two boys, yet in many ways the women they love shape the men they become. What roles do the women in the novel–Neils mother, who dies when he is in high school; John Williams mother, who abandons him when he is still a child; Neils loving and supportive wife; and John Williams college girlfriend–play in the lives of the two main characters?
16. How does inheriting John Williams money change things for Neil–if it does at all? Do you think that it is inheriting the money that allows Neil to finally devote himself to writing, or is it the chance to get John Williams story off his chest? Would John William want a book written about him? Is Neil exploiting his friend in any way?