By David Guterson
Knopf. 256 pp. $24.95
David Guterson caught everybody's attention in 1994 with his bestselling 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 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 Book World. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.