256 pages • Bloomsbury • July 6th, 2009 [PB]
American author, David Guterson, shot to prominence with his bestselling 1994 novel Snow Falling on Cedars (which was then adapted as a film starring Ethan Hawke in 1999).In The Other Guterson once again returns to his home territory of Seattle and Puget Sound in Washington State, this time not in the early-‘50s but some twenty years later.
The story of the life and death of reclusive John William Barry, posthumously notorious as the ‘Hermit of the Hoh’ (the Hoh being the River and Rain Forest of that name in Olympic National Park), is told by his loyal friend and confidant, Neil Countryman.
Neil and John William come from different sides of the tracks but meet as sixteen year-olds at an inter-school half-mile running race between the swanky Lakeside private academy and public (ie state) high school, Roosevelt. Despite the class barrier between them (the comfortable myth of America as a classless society is coolly exposed and explored here) Neil and John William form a bond which endures into adulthood.
As well as a fiercely competitive love of running they also share an interest in the great outdoors and it is on a hiking expedition together, lost and stoned in the wilderness of the Hoh, that they perform the blood brother ritual that ties them together in an uneasy bond for life.
Their story forms a meditation on modern urban life in the West – hamburger world as John William scathingly describes it – with its loss of contact with, and profit-driven destruction of, the natural world. John William’s own family wealth is derived in part from the environmental plundering of the logging industry. As he remarks acidly of his grandmother’s valuable collection of Clayton Price pictures “My grandfather cut down all the trees in five counties…so that my grandmother could buy all these finger-paintings.”
In its hankering after a simpler life The Other harks back, somewhat wistfully, to the pioneers and backwoodsmen of the 19th century, with more than a nod to those champions of nature and the pursuit of spirituality such as Thoreau, Wordsworth and Emily Dickinson. John William’s chosen solution is to utterly reject modern life while Neil outwardly conforms to it, becoming an English teacher, marrying his boyhood sweetheart, Jamie, and fathering two sons. But despite John William’s remote eremetical existence (and he is a hermit not only in his solitary, cave-dwelling lifestyle, but also in the religious sense, his fixation being the esoteric beliefs of Gnosticism) ironically it is urban Neil who sustains it, firstly by aiding-and-abetting his ‘disappearance’ and then smuggling provisions out to his wilderness retreat on a regular basis in order to keep him alive. In this way Guterson questions whether it is possible, or even desirable, to attempt to turn one’s back on modern life. Which is the more heroic, he appears to ask, to reject contemporary reality whilst actually relying upon it for survival or to live within it whilst retaining a modicum of integrity?
The two boys’ upbringings are very different. John William’s parents have a strained relationship that ultimately ends in divorce. His mother Ginnie’s cold, arrogant detachment and recurrent mental crises, and his father Rand’s absences, both emotional and physical, cause the fiercely intelligent but withdrawn boy to grow into an unsociable, ascetic adult. Neil’s upbringing on the other hand is altogether more grounded, the Countrymans being part of a large Irish-American working-class clan (“My father and brothers were all nail bangers and most of my male cousins followed suit by working in construction or the trades”), enjoying regular extended-family gatherings. But Guterson is scrupulous in neither demonising the one nor sentimentalising the other.
Guterson offers a humane, gentle, rational and level-headed exploration of the human condition. In counterpoint, as a backdrop to the maelstrom of modern urban greed and folly, often disregarded but omnipresent, stands the noble grandeur of the mountainous wilderness. Stretching for hundreds of miles from Washington State into Canada, it is the survival of this last vestige of primordial, pre-Columbian forest in the face of the rapaciousness of mankind which provides the metaphor that, ultimately, makes this wonderful book both sad yet uplifting.
“That’s you,” said John William. “You’re thinking of yourself.
You’re a loyal citizen of hamburger world.”