The eagerly anticipated new novel from the bestselling author of Snow Falling on Cedars
Guterson (Snow Falling on Cedars) runs out of gas mulling the story of two friends who take divergent paths toward lives of meaning. A working-class teenager in 1972 Seattle, Neil Countryman, a "middle of the pack" kind of guy and the book's contemplative narrator, befriends trust fund kid John William Barry--passionate, obsessed with the world's hypocrisies and alarmingly prone to bouts of tears--over a shared love of the outdoors. Guterson nicely draws contrasts between the two as they grow into adulthood: Neil drifts into marriage, house, kids and a job teaching high school English, while John William pulls an Into the Wild, moving to the remote wilderness of the Olympic Mountains and burrowing into obscure Gnostic philosophy. When John William asks for a favor that will sever his ties to "the hamburger world" forever, loyal Neil has a decision to make. Guterson's prose is calm and pleasing as ever, but applied to Neil's staid personality it produces little dramatic tension. Once the contrasts between the two are set up, the novel has nowhere to go, ultimately floundering in summary and explanation. (June) Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.
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June 02, 2008
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Excerpt from The Other by David Guterson
No Escape from the Unhappiness Machine
I attended Roosevelt (the Teddies, Teds, or Roughriders), a public high school in North Seattle, while my friend John William Barry was a student at Lakeside, our city's version of an East Coast private academy like Phillips Exeter or Deerfield. Besides slumping at my desk all day and getting high in Cowen Park at lunch, I also ran the 880--today called the eight-hundred-meter or the half-mile--for the RHS track team. It was a good niche for me. You didn't need to be fast or have the wind of the distance runner. Mostly what you needed was a willingness to sign up. As a sophomore in 1972, I was a good enough half-miler to represent RHS with a time of 2:11.24. To put this in context, the world record in '72 for the half-mile was held by Dave Wottle, with a time of 1:44.30. Roosevelt's best half-miler of all time is Chris Vasquez, '97, at 2:01.23. This is a race that takes runners twice around the red cinder oval found behind many high schools--I say this so you can imagine me losing to Vasquez by about thirty yards, or think of me still rounding the last bend, at the far end of the grandstands, while Wottle is crossing the finish line, arms raised victoriously. Either is a useful picture of me--of someone intimate with the middle of the pack. There's good and bad in that.
I remember one race more vividly than others. It's '72, so Nixon is president, though he and everything else, the world, seem far away from Seattle. I'm sixteen and wear my hair like Peter Frampton's and a mustache like Steve Prefontaine's. (Because of this mustache, I'm sometimes referred to at school as "the Turk," after the guy in the Camel cigarette ads. I'm not Turkish, but my mother's father, whom I never met, was what people call Black Irish, and possibly I inherited his coloring.) I've got on hi-cut satin shorts and a satin jersey emblazoned with Roughriders, and I'm at the starting line along with seven other runners, six with better qualifying times than mine. Despite them, I'm a believer that if the ninety-nine-pound mother in the apocryphal story can lift the front end of a Volkswagen off her crushed toddler, I can win today.
I'll dispense with the obligation to describe the weather--whether or not it was a sultry afternoon, with clouds of newly hatched mayflies above the track, or a windless May day smelling of moist turf and mown grass, is beside the point--and cut, literally, to in medias res: the eight of us stalwart and tortured young runners rounding the third curve of a high-school track and coming up on 250 yards. It's my usual MO--out front early and counting on adrenaline to keep me there, but with heels nipped and a sinking feeling that's anathema to winning. A race is a conversation with yourself, motivational in quality, until somebody interrupts by pulling away from you, and then it becomes an exercise in fathoming limits. Losing is like knowing that, in the movie scene where a thousand die but the hero lives, you're one of the obliterated.
The right track term is "running in a pack." That's us--a band of runners hardly separated. One keeps exhaling humidly on my shoulders. Another's left forearm hits my right elbow on its backswing. A runner pulls up beside me--the way a freeway driver pulls even in the adjacent lane to take your pulse--and I assess his chances with a panicked glance. Not strictured yet; striding with more ease than I feel; biding his time; relaxed. Working up a freshly adrenalized surge, I gain a quarter-step on him, but purchased with the last of my reserves.
The early leader in a half-mile race rarely crosses the finish line first. But he wants to have had the experience of leading--that's part of it--and he's perennially hopeful that, this time, things will be different in the home stretch. I still feel that way in the early part of curve three: that I might have heretofore undiscovered deposits of leg strength and cardiovascular capacity, not to mention will, at my disposal, all this against the grain of my foreboding. It turns out that my foreboding makes sense; at the curve's apogee, I know I'll flag, and with that, the flagging happens. Three runners pass me, going strong.
I'm needled by regret. Why don't I have a better strategy than running as fast as I can from start to finish? I've squandered my energy; I've incurred too large a deficit. But it isn't in me to plan; I just run, as my coach says, on unfocused emotion. These other runners, by the halfway mark--end of lap one, where we're lashed on by friends and exhorted by teammates, a small fire zone of screaming and technical advice--are just stretching out and finding a rhythm, while I'm already in a battle with depletion. I drop to sixth, dragging with me a familiar sense of failure.