I just finished The Other, by David Guterson (author of Snow Falling on Cedars.) Is this the most underrated novel of the year, or did I just miss the reviews? I loved everything about this book: the social commentary; the pitch perfect narrator voice; the risks of the mysterious, yet believable, storyline; the literary, cultural and geographic references. This is truly a modern day classic.
Let me back up. This is the story of two friends, John William Barry and Neil Countryman, who meet as competitors at a highschool track meet in the 70s and connect through a love of wilderness and outings exploring Washington state’s remote backcountry. According to the back of the book, this is a “coming-of-age novel that presents two powerfully different visions of what it means to live a good life and the compromises that come with fulfillment.”
As I was reading it, I kept thinking of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Strong male perspective. Female characters in the wings. Constant inner turmoil battling everyone else’s expectations. Hermetic brooding. The cave. Survival. Compromise.
Early on in the novel, it’s all about getting high and getting lost:
“We kept spinning our map around and rereading its contours, but so what? There was no way to make its symbols correspond to the world. Always this pattern – the three of us huddled over our map and deliberating on emptiness, then coming up empty. Was there something, somewhere, we could anchor to?”
The novel goes far beyond boyhood games in the woods. It’s exploration on a much deeper level – exploring ourselves, our families, the world around us.
While I’m certainly not a backcountry expert, I love the wild realm of the outdoors: the peace, beauty and connection it offers over a cushy, material life. As Neil says, “…there was a residue of this lonely and acute perception of the organized social world as a pathetic illusion…” This pull of contrasting environments and philosophies serves as the foundation for The Other – the storyline and setting are current and relevant, yet the questions that surface are timeless.
This is not a book for a casual reader, but I’ve already recommended it to a handful of people- surprisingly, all men -who I know will appreciate it.
(As I was writing this review, Simon & Garfunkel’s Homeward Bound came on the radio. Like pairing the right wine with your meal, this is perfect soundtrack for this book… )