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The Other by David Guterson

The Other (2008)

by David Guterson

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My sister recommended this book to me. She knows me fairly well and so when I read the back cover, I could immediately see why she thought I'd like it. The title also held a certain appeal, as it held suggestions of a favored theme.

This was the first book by David Guterson that I've read. As someone who haunts thrift stores and used bookstores, of course I knew his name well. In these places, Guterson's novel Snow Falling on Cedars is the book equivalent of a Mantovani or Herb Alpert vinyl record. In short, ubiquitous. I avoided it for the same reason I avoid the Alpert records: in my experience, nothing produced and subsequently discarded on such grand scale is that interesting.

When my sister first told me about the book, I looked Guterson up online and came across the controversial graduation speech he gave at his high school alma mater in 2013. He was heckled during the speech, which The Seattle Times described as "unorthodox, with frequent references to death and a gloomy tone." Some mild interest stirred within me as I read through the speech, which I found overly didactic and a bit condescending, albeit not without its truth.

The book ended up being about what I expected: nothing earth-shattering or particularly deep, but certainly readable, if not a bit bloated with excessive detail. Guterson employs fairly mundane literary techniques of jumping between present and past, though most of the crisscrossing plot is told as recollection. This lends a passivity to the action, a flaw which, ironically, Guterson's narrator mentions in the text as an early critique of his own writing. (One wonders if that was intentional or merely a Freudian slip.) It's the kind of prose that doesn't challenge readers, but rather comfortably leads them along by their noses. We don't need to worry, for we're in the capable hands of the Author, who will not fail to bring us to some sort of resolution. Despite Guterson's skills in descriptive prose, though, none of the characters feel fully formed, and as a result, none are appealing enough to elicit much sympathy. They felt less like individuals and more like types employed to make a point.

And what is Guterson saying with this novel. At one point near the end, his narrator states, "I'm a hypocrite, of course, and I live with that, but I live." Is this Guterson's critique of today's (chiefly developed) world citizens? That we all (should?) know better but we go on living in the same destructive ways anyway, because to remove ourselves completely from society would lead to certain death, like it did for his character John William? Or perhaps Guterson is merely critiquing himself in this regard.

I could go even further in deconstructing possibilities for interpretation. For example, maybe the two characters are intended as two halves of the same person, representing the inner struggle that the "enlightened" members of society endure every day of their privileged lives. This would align nicely with the title, which implies the "shadow" theme, the dark side inside all of us that resists conforming to the status quo. But no, I don't think a "national bestseller" (as the cover so boldly announces at the top) would stray into such murky territory as that.

All in all, it's not a bad book, especially for a "national bestseller." Perhaps it will give some readers pause for thought, although about what I'm still not certain. In some ways, the book can be seen as a legitimization of the bicycle-commuting, composting, small house-owning liberal lifestyle. That this way of living is "enough" for a world now in such a steep environmental decline that it's too far gone to save. On the other hand, the book could be read as a satire of this lifestyle, and John William's death as a tragedy symbolizing the hopelessness of trying to reverse the damage to the planet by riding bikes to work and recycling plastic bottles. Regardless of its point(s), though, the book could have made them in a more compelling way. ( )
  S.D. | Dec 7, 2014 |
bookshelves: currently-reading, published-2007, autumn-2013, e-book, abandoned, adventure, doo-lally, north-americas, next
Read from November 06 to 07, 2013

To A.S.C., A.V.S., and D.W.B.

Quote: Je est un autre. —Rimbaud

Opening: I attended Roosevelt (the Teddies, Teds, or Roughriders), a public high school in North Seattle, while my friend John William Barry was a student at Lakeside, our city’s version of an East Coast private academy like Phillips Exeter or Deerfield. Besides slumping at my desk all day and getting high in Cowen Park at lunch, I also ran the 880—today called the eight-hundred-meter or the half-mile— for the RHS track team.

All aboard the good ship Dilemma...

Sorry folks, this one is just not my cup of tea. Better things beckon

4* Snow Falling on Cedars
DNF The Other
2 ( )
  mimal | Jan 1, 2014 |
I tried to read this book but it was really hard to get into it. I made it to the 2nd or 3rd chapter, I think. I liked his other book, East of the Mountains, it was much more interesting. ( )
  floridakayakgirl | Dec 1, 2012 |
I turned to this book based on a positive review. Unfortunately, I found the author long winded and the storyline less than intriguing. Unusual for me, this book took me almost 2 months to read as it was just a complete drugery to get through. That being said, I believe I missed a lot of the finer details as I just couldn't "get into it". The one positive of the book was the scenic descriptions. He was able to convey the beauty and remoteness of many areas in the Pacific Northwest. ( )
  sunnydrk | May 9, 2012 |
Having just inherited a large fortune from his late friend John William Barry, Neil Countryman tells how it all came about. Friends since 1972 when in their their teens the two boys meet while competing against one another in the 880 yards. A friendship grows out of their shared love of the outdoor life and love of exploring the wilds around their Seattle home. On their ventures into the often unknown they would live off their wits and off the land.

But in time Neil settles for a conventional married life and teaching while John William is determined to live according to his beliefs, and starts to live a solitary totally self sufficient life in the Washington wilderness.

The Other is a story rich in detail, perhaps at times a little too much detail as Guterson can become bogged down in creating family histories and local connections. Roughly only half the book actually concerns the friendship the two boys and later young men enjoy. The rest looks into what made the two, and especially John William, what they are.

At its best it is a compelling and moving story, particularly when John William is living his life of recluse with Neil his only contact. But at times it can become a little laborious, and I began to wonder for a while if the book would ever get to discussing the character of John William and their friendship. ( )
  presto | Apr 24, 2012 |
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Je est un autre.

  -- Rimbaud
To A.S.C, A.V.S, and D.W.B.
First words
I attended Roosevelt (the Teddies, Teds, or Roughriders), a public high school in North Seattle, while my friend John William Barry was a student at Lakeside, our city's version of an East Coast private academy like Phillips Exeter or Deerfield.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0307263150, Hardcover)

Amazon Best of the Month, June 2008: When John William Barry and Neil Countryman meet at a high school track meet in the early 1970s, they are two sides of the same coin: John is a trust fund baby and student of a prestigious private school while Neil is solidly working class, but they share an affinity for the outdoors and apprehension over impending changes in their lives. After an unintentionally challenging week lost in the wilds of the North Cascades, John is compelled to an ascetic path: life in a remote river valley in the Olympic Peninsula rainforest, where he chips a shelter from a granite wall and immerses himself in the esoterica of Gnostic dualism --a philosophy that holds that the material world is illusional and destructive. Neil meanwhile chooses a traditional path as a father and school teacher, despite his troubled friend's exhortations to eschew "hamburger world" and find truth in a simpler, stripped-down existence. Nothing is that simple, of course, and The Other compellingly explores the compromises we make to balance meaning and security in our lives through the choices (and their subsequent consequences) of these two men. --Jon Foro

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:40:24 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

When two boys--John William Barry and Neil Countryman-- 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 Willliam 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 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.--From publisher description.… (more)

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