The Other – David Guterson

With all the books many of us are fortunate enough to have access to, I’m always interested in how we come to choose our next book to read. Up until a few weeks ago I hadn’t heard of David Guterson, I was aware of the acclaimed Snow Falling on Cedars but not who had written it or what it was about and I’d never really felt the need to find out. Now it’s right at the top of my wish list and I’m hoping to read it soon. It’s amazing how one little thing can lead to another and all of a sudden a whole new literary path is opened up. That’s one of the things I love about books – exploring and learning new things.

I’ve been attracted lately to the idea of reading books set in nature and the idea of simplifying life. I’m also keen to read some US authors and learn a bit about the different US states. The Other fits the brief perfectly as well as being set in the Washington/Portland area where my husband is likely to travel to for work in the future.

So that’s how I came to choose The Other and despite it being a month since I last posted, it hasn’t taken quite that long to read it! 272 pages sounds small but it felt more like 500 reading it. The pace is slow, totally appropriate for the theme of the story but about 20% too long I thought. I didn’t find it a labour to read but I can imagine some people might. This is a story that needs to strike a certain chord, if it does it’s very good. If not, it could seem too much like hard work.

Starting in 1972, two college boys meet as competitors in a track race. They strike up a friendship, based on a love of the outdoors, mutual respect and several coming of age type experiences. Narrated by Neil Countryman, one of the boys, the face of the story is his retelling of his friendship with John William Barry. Both boys are drawn to the idea of rejecting consumerism and living in the woods – following the teachings of Henry Walden. Neil Countryman remains interested but carries on to live a fairly conventional life. He begins his narration as a married man with a son and working as a high school teacher. John William Barry’s interest becomes a staunch commitment as he withdraws further from society but maintaining contact with his closest friend throughout.

I knew I was reading a book set in America in a different time. David Guterson is a descriptive writer, he explores deeply the physical environment and actions of his characters. I especially liked the feeling of expanse, the wide open spaces he uses as his setting and it seems nature also features prominently in his other novels – I like the idea of this.

272 pages, 2009

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6 responses to “The Other – David Guterson

  1. It is interesting how we decide to read books, isn’t it? It’s only been in the past five years or so that I’ve decided I need to stop reading American fiction because it simply wasn’t saying anything new to me anymore (this was after reading mainly US fiction for 20+ years!) and now I’m more inclined to read translated fiction, or stuff from Ireland, Australia, Scandinavia and so on. But I do like the sound of The Other. I’m one of the many who think Snow Falling on Cedars is brilliant — I read it back in, oh, 1996 I think and I still have a very vivid memory of buying the book in Melbourne. I went book shopping with a friend and by sheer coincidence we both bought the same book! I think you’ll really enjoy it when you finally get around to it.

  2. Kimbofo – It is interesting… and I often wonder about the luck of it all and the no doubt many amazing books out there that pass us by as well. I’m also really enjoying discovering authors from all the countries you mentioned – such a treat to discover a new author and I’m especially enjoying Australia authors. What a lovely memory to have of Snow Falling on Cedars – I will definitely read it soon and will let you know how I get on. Happy reading this weekend.

  3. Unlike you, the book overlaps my time substantially. I took long hikes on the Washington Coast in my youth with Seattle kids from the very demographic of the main characters. I’d been to virtually every place mentioned in the book, even the few out of state ventures. Most of the action takes place in my favorite wilderness area. The style of writing suggests a great many autobiographical anecdotes from the author. But I feel a greater call to read, and to read again, the many books cited or quoted in the work. This book was nearly forced upon me by a friend. This was uncharacteristic for her. But something in her yearns for discussion of this book and it’s messages. She was raised in Chicago, so she found a deep connection without an intimate knowledge of the places. She’s not an outdoor type, so again she’s found connection with something other than the brilliant devices of setting. I can’t wait to sit down over great wine to discover what those connections are.

  4. Brian – Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment. I can imagine this would have been a really special read for you, intimately knowing the area and having shared experiences with the characters. I agree it felt quite autobiographical and I meant to say in my review that it didn’t seem like fiction to me, I had to remind myself of that from time to time. The essence of John William Barry’s story reminded me in parts of Christopher McCandless in Into The Wild – and it resonated with me too despite having never been to the area so I can understand your friend’s reaction to it. I imagine you will have a wonderful conversation.

  5. Tracey – Thanks for your reply. I hope you get a chance to visit this best corner of the country. Bring rain gear when you do. And when you return to your home make sure to tell people that it rained all the time even if it didn’t. Like you, I found myself thinking of Into the Wild, but perhaps in a different way. When I was young my dad would bring me into the Olympic Mountains, teaching me to fish and to forage. I inherited from him many such skills, but it also came with a bit of contemptuousness for those who venture into the wild without the necessary skills or intrepidity to complete the journey. Somehow I came to think of Christopher McCandless as one of those for whom the wilderness was a place of hiding, but not so much a refuge. I couldn’t buy into the idea of his death as a triumph, though I could accept his families need to project that idea. As I write this John William Barry still lives, though he clearly languishes in his self made home. I’m not yet done with The Other. I should have mentioned that in my post. And though his end is foreshadowed, I’m not yet aware of the life altering revelation toward which the characters move, or how relevant that might be to me. I don’t have the protagonist’s gnostic inspired sense of the banality of the material world. And I have neither the narrator’s gift for observation nor the breadth of his thirst for literature. But I console myself that I share their wonderment for all things natural. I hope it is enough.

  6. In literary criticism, dramatic perspective takes place when the narrator describes the action but gives little or no view into the thoughts and motivations of the protagonist. It’s much lest common when the narrator is part of the action. In this case, we have a point by point description of the actions of John Williams Barry, but only hints at his motivations. I’ve read a great deal about gnosticism, but I didn’t find that it reveals anything about our hero’s unique experience as a hermit. I did find it interesting to have some explanation of his choices so long after his passing. I think you could safely take many different perspectives on this book. It could even be taken as a form of picaresque, with JWB’s motives interpreted as weakness of character and inability to contend with a world that his mother couldn’t handle and against which his father had routinely anesthetized himself. As a frequent visitor to vistas of action, I tend to find the woodsman an heroic character. It is very difficult to settle on a singular interpretation of this book. I do feel the need to take in more from the author. He has sharpened my sense of awe at the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.

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