Monday, August 18, 2008

The End of the Road Not Taken

Erudite Mondays at HalfSoled Boots
Volume 5, Number 3

David Guterson

Seconds ago I turned the last page of David Guterson's new book, The Other. In between setting it down and picking up my laptop, I murmured, involuntarily and in a subdued voice, "Wow."

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, this is a huge book. Not physically - there are only 256 pages - but thematically.

Written in the first person, this story is a complicated, delicate retrospective of a long friendship between boys who become men - boys who inhabit each other's thoughts and emotions. John William Barry is the son of prominent Seattle money, and Neil Countryman's is a family of "nail bangers" - construction workers and tradesmen. They meet at the end of a footrace in 1972, after John William defeats Neil by three-quarters of a stride, and offers his hand at the end with "heartfelt, ruddy, exclamatory" sentiment.

The next two hundred or so pages are the firelit, pot-scented chronicle of adventure and misadventure as experienced by John William and Neil. I couldn't drag myself from this book. It led me inexorably from paragraph to paragraph, greedy to discover the next turn of the wheel: to pull aside the curtain a little bit more, hoping for another glimpse at the character and history of John William, Hermit of the South Fork Hoh.

There are beautiful moments in this book. You love, and disapprove of, the two boys. You understand, and then you don't. And if you read literature with a critical eye, as I do, you can't help but admire Guterson's technique - his choice of metaphor, his light hand and deft touch. The way he often says, in this novel, "In other words". And the voice of the narrator, Neil Countryman, is consistent and honest, believable.

There is a wonderful evocative use of language - images and sounds that convey the light and shadow of life with ease and richness. I often turned a page to a new chapter, only to laugh involuntarily, or catch my breath in foreboding, as I glimpsed the heading: the first chapter is entitled "No Escape From the Unhappiness Machine". There is also "Loyal Citizen of Hamburger World" and the second-last, my favourite, "Periodic Irritable Crying".

The book is about many things. It's about the choice given us, every day, to either live in the world or be apart from it. And it's about what happens to those people who are dragged in the wake of genius, or psychosis, or fanaticism.

Stories are compelling things. Well-told, they can occupy your thoughts to obsession, making normal living impossible. Guterson is amazing in this novel. He gives away the end, right at the beginning - on page 6. You could quit reading there, if all you wanted to know was what happened. But you don't, because it's not the end that matters - it's what lies buried at the beginning, what is uncovered in the middle - and, even more importantly, why?

Before I rate this book, I'd like to encourage you to leave a comment telling me a bit about your favourite book. Not just title and author, nor even a plot synopsis - what I'd like to hear about is how it makes you feel, and why. I'm giving away a hardcover of The Other to one commenter, selected from all those who leave me a note before the next Erudite Monday.

HalfSoled Boots' Highly Specialised Book Rating System
The Other gets:

Reread? Yes. At least yearly.
Given to Others? Yes.
Bookplate? Absolutely.



Dave Hingsburger said...

My favourite non-fiction book would have to be 'Man's Search for Meaning' by Victor Frankl. This book was written in a Nazi camp by a psychologist ... it looked at, among other things, how people survive in situations of extreme horror. This book is about hope and about the very nature of freedom. It freely gives away the secret about how we, as humans, each have the ultimate control over our world, our circumstances our very selves. After reading this book I found my fundamental view of the world had shifted. It turned a hurt little boy into a man who'd found his voice. I then read every book Frankl wrote that had been translated into English. Years later I wrote two articles that were published in Frankl's logotherapy journals ... articles read by him. These were my gifts back to the master.

Dave Hingsburger said...

My favourtie fiction book is a much harder call. I'm tempted to say 'The Secret Life of Bees' because it was such a delicious read. To be a old, white, gay guy and discover the commonality of humanity in the story of a young, impoverished, black girl is, ultimately, what literature does. But then, I think Iris Murdoch's 'A Fairly Honourable Defeat' might have to take the gold. This was one of the first books I ever read that had a decent portrait of a gay couple. The book is about a guy who bets he can break up any couple he wants to, just by manipulating egos and personalities. One couple survives because one couple does the one thing that couples need to do in order to manage well through a life together. It served, for me, as a blueprint for how to live a life together with another. (Don't assume at all from what I've said that I've given away which couple survives, because I haven't at all.) So silver to The Secret Life of Bees and Gold to A fairly honorable defeat. Oh, you want a bronze. Well then, I'd have to go with a recent book. I fell in love with A Thread of Grace ... but you knew that ...

Thanks for a great review, this is a book I would like to read. But, even more, it was fun to think over the books I've read. I know that minutes after I've done this, I'll think of other books I'd wish I'd mentioned instead of these.

Suelle said...

The book that leaves me with the best feeling is "Katherine" by Anya Seton. It's historical fiction, & I usually don't like that sort of stuff that much. But there's something about it--the things she looses in her life, & the things she ends up finding--that leave me with a feeling of peace.
Thanks for the great question!

Rachel said...

Thanks for another great review. I've read two other DG books and loved them (East of the Mountains and Snow Falling on Cedars) but have shied away from him for awhile after hearing some pretty horrible reviews on Our Lady of the Forest. I'll have to return my faith and pick this one up!

I have many favorite books that affect me in different ways. But the very first book that came to mind when reading your questions is Truck Stop Rainbows by Iva Pekarkova. I read this for the first time when I was in my 20' a time when I was sort of struggling to find my place in the world as well as struggling to maintain my individuality despite much pressure to change. To me, no matter the story, this is what TSR is about...maintaining individuality. Simply put, it gave me strength. I have gone back many times the past 15 years and reread this book when I needed that strength.

Kristine said...

Okay, I give in; I keep meaning to read David Guterson, and your review has utterly sold me on him. I've been meaning to start reading grown-up books again (I've been on a kidslit/scifi/fantasty/Dark Tower kick since Lu was born) and I think this one will be my first. Provided the library has a copy.

Thank you for Erudite Mondays.

kate said...

Yeah, no. I can't answer that!! Too many, every time I think of one then I think of another one.

This was a great review, although he isn't one of my favourite authors.

Gwen said...

"Jane Eyre," because it makes me despair, hope, cry, love, hate, laugh and fantasize, all in the course of just a few hours.

Gwen said...

PLUS, what's not to like about Mr Hottie Patottie Rochester? Ding dong!

Annalea said...

Right now, my favorite book is Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim. Why? Hmmmmm . . . It's about change . . . the kind that happens when one person decides that the status quo has got to end. When one ordinary, timid, and sweet woman takes a bold step, changing the lives of six people dramatically.

It's a happily-ever-after type book, but that's not why I love it. It's a powerful example of how your thinking determines your world, and how shaking things up by simply being happy can have profound results.

It's also about how much people need each other . . . how happiness isn't a solitary thing, but rather something we can give each other.

If you haven't read it, it's a short one, and it would be interesting to see your take on it. Even if you hate it, it would fascinate me to know why. :o)

Cynthia said...

Love your reviews, Shan!

My long-time favorite novel is John Crowley's Little, Big. I love the way things that seem perfectly clear turn out to be more complex, and things that seem impossible are easy to understand, viewed another way. I find the characters interesting & plausible, I like Crowley's use of language, and I just plain love the house that's a main focus of the book. In my head, I live in that house.

OTOH, while I've enjoyed some of Crowley's other books, I've never gotten caught up in them the way I have this one. Most of his writing seems a little distant, a little cerebral, to me. And I've talked to some people who feel the same way about Little, Big. I first read it in my late teens and have read it every few years for almost 30 years now; maybe some of what I read in it is what I've put into it.

Persuasion and Sense & Sensibility are right up there, too. I love many things about Austen, but in particular these two show their protagonists struggling to cope with difficult situations while remaining true to themselves.

Oh, I could go on and on. But I have to go see if my library has The Other