July 31, 2008

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The Other, by David Guterson (2008, Knopf, 256 pages)
By Nate Graziano news@hippopress.com

There is a slight difference between “appreciating” and “enjoying” a work of fiction. David Guterson’s much-anticipated fourth novel The Other, with its lush language and philosophical subtext, is well worth a reader’s appreciation, but its torpid plot and lack of compelling conflict make it difficult to enjoy.

There is an age-old debate about whether novels should be “driven by plot” or “driven by ideas” and there is no right answer. Today’s corporate book market is fueled by the former, and in this market only an author of Guterson’s talent and reputation can get away with offering a novel driven by ideas, as he does in The Other.

Neil Countryman is a veteran high school English teacher and an aspiring writer from a working-class Irish family, who finds himself the Nineteenth-Richest Person in Washington State when his best friend and “blood brother” John William Barry, a rich kid turned cave-dwelling hermit, leaves him his entire inheritance. Like Guterson, who acquired overnight fame with his 1995 breakthrough novel Snow Falling on Cedars, Countryman wrestles throughout the novel with this newfound wealth and fame, while unpacking the story of his enigmatic best friend.

The Other, however, seems less about Countryman than about Barry, by far the most compelling character in the book. Barry, who Countryman met during a track meet in high school, is from old wealth in Washington State, his lineage tracing back to the founders of Seattle. Barry is an intellectual and an eccentric with a hankering for Gnosticism and a disdain for materialism. After an ill-fated year at Reed College, Barry takes to the woods and vows never to return to the civilized (or, as Huck Finn would say, “sivilized”) world, earning him the posthumous nickname of The Hermit of the Hoh. Barry carves a cave from limestone and attempts to live in complete reclusion, with Countryman’s occasional supply visits being his only contact with humanity and the modern world. He weaves his own mats, eats from a stockpile of canned food. He reads, jots poems, and when Countryman visits, the two engage in epic chess battles.

Herein lays the problem.

Regardless of how you spin it, chess games don’t make for riveting reading. Neil Countryman is a bit of a dud — an everyday guy in his 50s who enjoys British literature, hiking and attending teaching conferences. Settle down, Neil. It just so happens he has a really interesting friend. At times, the novel toys with taking off, but this is only when Barry is alive and present. For most of the novel, Barry is either dead or in the periphery. A large portion of the novel is occupied by Countryman talking about Barry with a bevy of tedious characters — Barry’s lawyer, father, ex-girlfriend — as Countryman’s life story of unfolds secondhand.

Aside from Guterson’s occasional self-indulgence with the language, the voice is pitch-perfect and the writing is impeccable, rich and evocative. The themes The Other explores and the questions it poses — how we discover or reject meaning in a flawed modern world and how we find a connection with it — are timely and pertinent. The argument can be made that this is precisely the job of good literature.

The Other is not meant to be devoured like a Harlequin romance, but it also lacks the hooks that made Snow Falling on Cedars so entrancing. While Guterson is unarguably a fine writer, one of the better novelists working today, The Other flexes but never quite delivers the punch. B-Nate Graziano