With 'East of the Mountains,' Guterson is back, in force

April 04, 1999|By Beth Kephart | By Beth Kephart,Special to the Sun

"East of the Mountains," by David Guterson. Harcourt Brace. 288 pages. $25.

One of the great lines in contemporary literature graces the final page of the first-novel phenomenon, "Snow Falling on Cedars." "(Ishmael) understood this, too": David Guterson wrote at the close of his mystery, "that accident ruled every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart."

It was Guterson's achievement, with "Snow," to explore matters of law and landscape, passion and history, within a whodunit framework that kept its readers hungrily turning its pages. Winner of the 1995 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, "Snow" won the public's ardor as well, to the tune of more than 2.5 million paperback copies and counting.

With "East of the Mountains," Guterson's second novel, expectations run impossibly high. Harcourt Brace is launching a massive, $500,000 marketing campaign, laying down 500,000 books with its first printing, sending Guterson on a zagging, cross-country tour.

Much of what readers have come to expect from Guterson has, with "East," returned. Landscape and atmosphere are back in force, sometimes excessively so, more often gorgeously rendered.

Guterson's uncanny facility with the uncommon detail is also, again, ubiquitous. In "East" Guterson writes with impressive authority on topics as diverse as apple orchards, hunting paraphernalia and veterinarian science. If one wonders, at times, whether Guterson has grown more enamored of the facts than he might, one also delights in several truly brilliant passages, the large percentage of which occur in a lengthy recollection of World War II.

Unfortunately, in "East," the excursions and diversions are more effective, in many cases, than the narrative onto which they are pinned.

This is not to suggest that Guterson has failed to ask and consider important questions; to the contrary: Guterson is writing about all the right things. But far too often, sheer character and story get snuffed out by the theme. One feels the hand of the author too keenly; one is aware of the manipulations of the plot.

A man, his memory, his land, and his cancer lie at the center of "East," and one overarcing dilemma carries the tale: What happens at the end of a deeply appreciated life?

At 73, Ben Givens is a retired heart surgeon in the last stages of incurable colon cancer, a widower who keenly misses his wife. Seeking an end to his misery, he sets out on a meticulous, pragmatic suicide mission.

But things do not go according to plan. As we travel with Ben into apple orchard country, we encounter, with him, unexpected upsets. He is reduced, successively, by error and accident. He bangs, he bruises, he wanders, he stumbles, he falls, he rises up, he gropes through the dark, he suffers mightily on so that he might rightly die. Were it not so serious, it would seem vaguely comic.

"He was in the sagelands, alone. ... The cold had entered his long-suffering joints, and his bladder pressed for attention. He was as stiff in his back as if the vertebrae were fused, his left eye was swollen shut, and his fingers were numb and useless. More, his left knee seemed incapable of bending, and his arthritic ankle throbbed." Not to mention the unspeakable agony of the end-stage cancer.

Three joints of marijuana imparted by a fellow traveler yield passing moments of reverie and relief. It is, for example, when Ben succumbs to a narcotic haze that we learn the history of Ben's long love affair with his wife, or grow to understand Ben's obsession with hearts and healing. These reveries are privileged passages -- gripping and human and real.

Present time, sobreity, is less sustaining. The landscape keeps intruding, a quasi-substitute for plot. Dialogue is truncated, redundant, as if no one has very much to say and so, to lengthen the discourse, one says it twice.

And while the philosophical quandary about living and dying rises to an exquisite passage toward the close of the book, one senses that there might be more inconsistency than raw spiritual conflict here, more ambivalence than assertion.

One guesses that perhaps even Guterson has doubts about all the devices he uses to keep the plot moving; time and again, when Ben relates the extent of his travails to others, he is told, in no uncertain terms, that it makes no sense.

"This is a really weird story," Ben's daughter tells him, toward the close of the book. "I can't believe I'm hearing this."

Readers might start to say the same thing, too. But Guterson fans will also likely sing the praises of the many lush passages that mark "East" as this author's own.

Beth Kephart is author of "A Slant of Sun: One Child's Courage." She was a finalist for the 1998 National Book Award in nonfiction. Kephart is at work on a new book of nonfiction, "Beyond the Crow's Nest: Into the Tangle of Friendship." She won the 1998 Leeway Foundation Grant in nonfiction, and was also named a finalist in the Pew Fellowship in Arts program.

Pub Date: 04/04/99

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.