guest review of sorts: The Other by David Guterson, from Pops

In the same spirit in which we both read Endgame and Ishmael, Pops has recently read David Guterson’s The Other, and I have some snippets of his thoughts to share with you. For a little background, I read The Other too, a number of years ago (and pre-blog). I liked it very much; I found it thought-provoking and wise, and it reminded me of a very dear friend. I later read Guterson’s better-known Snow Falling on Cedars, and found it fine but not comparable – so there’s yet another case in which the general opinion differs from mine. Now I will turn this over to Pops, whose thoughts are just represented in brief passages here for you, along with those bits from the book that he found memorable. As ever, thank you Dad for sharing with us.


I just finished reading The Other, and it was quite stunning. In fact, it was nearly literally stunning. (Starting a book with a story about a couple runners is quite a hook for me anyway!)

Why did I wait this long to pick this book up? It has been on my shelf for years and I almost discarded it unread several times without ever knowing why I kept it other than a vague knowledge that it came recommended. I’m embarrassed to find that Julia even referenced it in publishing my comments about Fire Season! How could I have overlooked it for so long? Was this book exercising an independent will, waiting for a certain moment?

I don’t remember terribly many details of the plot from my years-ago reading, but I’ll try to assemble a quick synopsis from memory: two young men, Neil and John William, are friends in high school. They run together. After high school ends and they transition towards adulthood, they head in different directions. Neil becomes a teacher, and John William retreats towards the wild. He camps out in the woods, hikes, lives off the land. He is simultaneously very cerebral, reads poetry, discusses it with Neil; they correspond. They play chess. John William is the superior player. Gradually, JW withdraws more and more from society and from his family; he enlists Neil’s help in disappearing entirely. He wastes away out in the mountains alone in ways that look unhealthy to our eyes as trained by society. He also rejects some things but not others, in a way that looks hypocritical but, I came to feel, highlights the contradictions in us all, in society, in what the world has to offer us. I’m not expressing that well; I blame my distant and vague recollection of the book. JW comes to a less than savory end, and Neil is left with his own compromises.

My father does not discuss plot much here. He and I may have to have our own, off-the-record discussion; as I said in my review of Endgame (link at the top of this post), these issues are very personal, and at some point fall outside the scope of this blog. But in the briefest, sketchiest way possible, Pops says…

What is this book about? Why the impact?

• Two runners with a life long bond
• Seattle, the Olympics and other northwest locations evoked with affection and an insider’s eye
• Timing: in the midst of a streak of eerily connected non-fiction, a novel that matches the others for relevance
• Particularly & effectively juxtaposed with my other current read: E.O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth (an informed scientific look at “who we are”)
• John William, the character focus of much attention, seeks and ultimately sees too clearly the reality of human’s place on earth, and suffers the fate of such seekers; he becomes an isolated loner in an insane world, tragically fated to be branded insane himself (“the other”)
• Neil, the other character and narrator, who is painfully wedded to the civilization torturing his friend yet arguably as alienated in his own way, and ultimately as tortured by his addiction, notwithstanding sudden wealth
• Though only tantalizingly developed, I loved the character of his wife, Jamie.
• Why are Neil’s sons never named? There are more significant characters in the book, all named; but these are the beloved offspring of our narrator!
• Inspiring contemplation on humanity’s endless, frivolous and prideful introspection in pursuit of explaining who we are, while we never grasp the greater tragedy of our puny yet destructive role in the natural world
• The futility of wealth solving any of our problems – and thus the trivial & sad quest for it
• Brouwer’s, the notable Belgian beer bar in the UW area, is specifically described.

Following are some passages, to offer just a few places where I stopped to reread and contemplate.

This paragraph I reread many times, due to the language and the message hidden there; not an easy one to parse out!

“A light he was to no one but himself” – that’s a line from a Frost poem, “An Old Man’s Winter Night,” which a lot of students don’t respond to very strongly. “A light he was to no one but himself” – I wouldn’t choose that, and if I have to suffer it one day, because of circumstances, I’m fairly certain it will lead to my demise, because that cast, that illumination, is foreign to me – I’m finally saddled with my take on things as ineluctably as I’m slowed, and pained, by the neuroma in my foot. So be it. I have the beauty that I have, and none other, in the meantime. One thing has led to the next in my life, but like lines of a poem. I suppose I’ve thrown in my lot with love, and don’t know any other way to go on breathing. I embrace this world – the world my friend hated – and suffer it consciously for its compensations, and fully expect to awake one day to the consequences of this bargain I’ve struck, since life, eventually, closes in.

On heading into the woods, only to find that your mind is not quite with the program for some reason…

The place felt sinister though. Your imagination can get the better of you where a road ends against a forest. It’s easy to feel trapped with your back against trees. Vulnerable to all of this, I got on the trail and tried loving my solitude, but this was a futile and self-conscious effort. I didn’t want to be there, by myself, while the sun went down. I didn’t want to be hiking in such a tense silence. The maple leaves were youthfully green, but that didn’t ameliorate my nervous view of things. Before dark, I bivouacked, tentless, by the river, banking up a fire in front of a boulder and basking in its heat with my journal and The Collected Eliot, 1909-1962, which an excitable professor had asked me to scour, and although all of that might sound pleasant enough, or not a bad way to pass evening hours – especially with the din of water on the gravel bars and my view of stars illuminated silhouetted hills – I didn’t enjoy being there. I suppose you could say that my aloneness got the better of me, or that I felt fear that night, by the river, by myself – but fear of life, and not of animals or the forest. “The Hollow Men” didn’t help, because I couldn’t disown its mood, or break its hold on my thoughts, as I lay in my sleeping bag by those smoking coals, and though this temper made me tired, it also left me agitated enough to prod, more often than I needed to, the sticks I was burning. I mostly felt wistful. I didn’t want to have behind, already, some experiences I couldn’t have again. Reading Eliot by flashlight was like deciphering runes, and made it more difficult to sleep.

On how ephemeral is “reality” about ourselves (individually or as humanity), and how our “advanced” minds can create such enormous conceit out of nothing…

…maybe the truth is that truth is too complicated. If I extrapolate from myself, there’s a lot of deceit in the world without a beginning, middle, or end. The way it really works, a lot of the time, is that you suffer from the weight of what happened, from what you said and did, so you lie as therapy. Now the story you make up starts to take up space otherwise reserved for reality. For phenomena you substitute epiphenomena. Skew becomes ascendant. The secondary becomes primary. When it’s time to confess, you don’t know what you’re saying. Are you telling the truth, or do you confuse your lies with reality? The question is comical. The answer is lost in the maelstroms of consciousness. It’s even possible to pretend, eventually, that the question wasn’t asked. You’ve been kidding yourself about yourself for so long, you’re someone else. Your you is just a fragile fabrication. Every morning, you have to wake up, assemble this busy, dissembling monster, and get him or her on his or her feet again for another round of fantasy. Is this what some sutras by Buddhists are about? Maybe. The book-length bromides on mental health? At times. The biographies on politicians? Take Nixon or Clinton. Anyway, I don’t know anything about Rand or Ginnie. I don’t know if anyone tried to strangle John William. I don’t really know who tormented whom, or why, or if anyone was even tormented at all. I don’t even know much about myself. I only know that Ginnie protested with Chronic Obsessions pressed against her bibbed chest. Then she kicked me out.

And finally, two paragraphs near the book’s end, set apart in a section on their own, on the emptiness of wealth against a background of questioning…

Jamie and I turned in the ’92 Civic and bought a hybrid, which we recently took to the Canadian Okanagan – the Napa of the North that Wiley and Erin told us about. We walked, swam, biked, sunned, tasted wines, ate well, bought pottery, and watched the sun go down, and though all of this was fun, none of it made us happy. We both wanted something else that was unnameable. It might be forever unnameable. In this regard, money changes nothing, which Jamie and I knew before we had it.

When I think about my friend, I think about someone who followed through, and then I’m glad not to have followed through, to still be breathing, to still be here with people, to still be walking in the mountains, and to still be uncertain – even with all this cash on hand – in a way I seem to have no choice about. I’m a hypocrite, of course, and I live with that, but I live.

Powerful stuff.

It is powerful stuff. I realize we haven’t given you much of a review to speak of, here. But I hope we have expressed that Guterson tells a unique tale in an evocative fashion, that has managed at least to provoke two of us to further reflection and discussion.

One Response

  1. […] in 1986 by Scriber; this 2015 edition is being called a 30-year anniversary, and David Guterson (The Other, Snow Falling on Cedars) brought it to […]

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