A natural friendship

Review

David Guterson's 'The Other' tells the tale of two men whose relationship centers on the wilds of Washington state

July 20, 2008|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

THE OTHER by David Guterson Knopf / 255 pages / $24.95

In the movies, bad things happen in the woods. Scary things. Things that are life-altering or murderous or both.

In David Guterson's novels, the woods are consistently a metaphor for the interior landscape that can neither be fully charted or is rife with unknown and unknowable dangers. In his provocative new novel, The Other, half the story takes place in the woods with Guterson's metaphor both brutal and succinct.

Guterson has the kind of back story that compels young writers to persevere. His first novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1996. Then a high school English teacher in Seattle, Guterson had been working on the book for 15 years. He was already 40 when it was published.

Snow Falling on Cedars was both a critical success and a best-seller. Guterson turned to writing full time. His next two books received solid critical acclaim but didn't become best-sellers.

The Other very well may be, as it is the author's best work yet. A deeply interior novel, The Other is about the transitory nature of choice and identity: how we become who we are destined to be, and what gets us to that place and keeps us there.

Guterson has a keen ear for dailiness. He gets what it's like to live what appears to be a quotidian existence, yet be content with that life, as his narrator, Neil Countryman, is. Guterson also gets what it's like to make a wildly different choice from everyone else and still remain unsatisfied, as is the case for his other main character, John William Barry.

Countryman is a Seattle schoolteacher who is married with kids and has a solid, though still contemplative, life. Barry is the scion of two of Seattle's most elite families and heir to timber and banking fortunes; his family helped found the city. But Barry eschews the hypocrisies of his class and yearns to flee the trappings of his life, even as Countryman embraces his.

The novel opens as Countryman remembers a 1972 track event upon which the entire story pivots.

Countryman attends the public school, Roosevelt, and Barry the toniest of prep schools, Lakeside. Both are runners, though Countryman is not a very good one. The 16-year-olds meet and begin a lifelong friendship predicated on what they have in common: the still-wild woods of Washington state near the Cascade Mountains and the passions that drive them both.

Barry is an unhappy teen who grows into an even more unhappy adult. There is, for him, "no escape from the unhappiness machine," which is the world of hypocrisy and unfulfilled - or unfulfillable - expectations. Countryman is a calm, even-keeled sort, self-described on both the track and in life as "middle of the pack."

Both men are drifters of a sort. Countryman drifts into normal adulthood: He settles down into job and family almost without thinking or dreaming. ("I was, from the age of thirteen, ready to marry the first girl that came along.") Barry drifts into the woods - deeper and deeper. And it is this, Barry's quest for freedom from what most of us call reality, that becomes the nexus of the friendship as well as of the novel itself.

Some people want to start over. Barry wants to start over throughout his entire life - over and over until there is nothing but newness, nothing but freshness, nothing but the interior with no external forces impinging on even the margins of his thoughts.

But is that possible? And if so, must he involve Countryman in his quest?

As boys, the duo take to the wilderness with the wild abandon of wolfish teenagers. They chart the uncharted, breathe in the exoticism of the wild that lies just on the fringes of their ultra-cosmopolitan world. They are on a quest for survival, a kind of American wilderness walkabout. They test themselves and each other again and again to see how close they can come to the brink of ... something, before turning back.

Except Barry doesn't want to turn back. He wants to go deeper. And so he does, with Countryman's help.

Midpoint through the novel, Countryman, remembering a trip he had taken through Europe, notes of himself in retrospect, "I was then and am now, a believer in reserve, in brevity, and in the value of silence."

This is the core value which Countryman and Barry share: silence and all it offers to the contemplative.

Silence can appear static, but this is not a static novel. It's brimming with quietly electric moments of clarity and exposition that peel back the layers of who both men are - going seamlessly back and forth between their youth and the present until monumental events change both men's lives irrevocably.

Things happen in and out of the woods in this Guterson tale. Barry becomes a hermit, Countryman helps him fake an escape, the two delve deeper into their friendship even as it seems to be more and more uneven. Countryman cares for his friend - he is an honorable, loyal man - just as he cares for Jamie, his wife of 28 years, that first girl he found and loved.

But this is not a story of marriage or even of middle-aged angst - it's about the kind of friendship that only heterosexual men have with each other. It's about grit and being a buddy and having both nothing and everything in common for a lifetime of choices that seem irretrievably wrong, ultimately right and defy explanation all at once.

Victoria A. Brownworth is the author and editor of more than 20 books. She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She is at work on a novel about Trotsky in Mexico.

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