In this issue:
Books: The Other is based on connotations stirred by an ironically simple and brief quotation from Rimbaud, Je est un autre. The Man Who Loved China is a fascinating panoramic picture of China through the millennia. Stand The Storm is the brave tale of a family's rise from slavery. Settling is an engaging romance that will speak to those of us who have lived through a few heartbreaks and recoveries of our own
By David Guterson © 2008
Anyone who hasn’t already had the pleasure of reading David Guterson has already been deprived; anyone who misses this wonderful novel is to be pitied. Here is a story based on the permutations and connotations stirred by an ironically simple and brief quotation from Rimbaud: Je suis un autre, that leads to events and relationships that will resonate in every breast.
These are individuals, drawn with enormous respect for their singularity. Even Neil as an ideal modern husband, father and worker is atypical in his self-awareness. This particular characteristic makes him the perfect teller of the story of his friend.
Two young men meet by chance and become rivals — at first purely in young male physical contests. They run footraces against each other, challenge orienteering problems, while testing their resolution, their strength, their guts against each other.
Their relationship becomes a bit lopsided as John William becomes rapidly dependent on Neil, who nevertheless develops a feeling of brotherly obligation toward this strangely alienated young man. There is more than socio-economic differences between these two. They are they antithesis of “soul mates.” John William rapidly slides away from ordinary society when having become obsessed with the Gnostics and determined to bind Neil to him, he hopes to evade what he calls the ”Unhappiness Machine.”
At times the reader nearly wishes that Neil would resign his humanitarian duty, so sorely does John William put them both to the test. The fact that Neil never does desert his friend gives the story the sort of tone associated with Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. If that sounds like a grandiose claim, read the book.
The young men go their separate ways, at first seeming to be heading in obviously diverse directions — John William to a prestigious private college, Neil to a state university. But soon enough, John William, long after the two have passed their boyhoods, veers off the expected course to a melodramatic and even panicky distance. Neil, bound now by what is responsibility towards his friend, follows without sacrificing his life and ambitions completely, in an effort to draw his friend back to fulfillment.
When John William deliberately does his best to draw Neil into situations that were marginally acceptable for foolish adolescents, Neil faithfully does his best to prevent total disaster. There’s a temptation to allude to classical and biblical tragedy when considering the bond between the friends.
Guterson never writes down to his readers; he allows his characters to be intelligent and sentient. His pictures in words are vivid. Describing how a passing express train appears to someone waiting on the platform as it whizzes past, Guterson writes, “…the passengers in it flashing past like the kings, queens, and jacks in a thumbed deck of cards, ephemeral as thoughts.”
As a devotee of wilderness, the inhuman beauty and grandeur of the Northwest mountains and forests, Guterson’s descriptions enthrall. This book (like his earlier novel Snow Falling on Cedars) is a literary delight.
It’s difficult to discuss work like Guterson’s without making uncomplimentary comparisons with lesser authors because he is such an admirable practitioner of what makes the novel the perfect way to explain us to ourselves. If every story could project so much beauty, humanity, and piercing understanding, it’s possible a good many head shrinkers would be out of patients. If every author commanded the artistry and subtlety of David Guterson, even TV might be on the wane.