Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


The Other by David Guterson




(Highly Recommended)




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The breadth and intensity of friendship provide the grist for David Guterson’s new novel, The Other. A wealthy private school track runner, John William Barry, paces himself with working class Neil Countryman at a high school track meet and they discover a common love of the outdoors and an apprehension about their futures. Set in the 1970s, there are drugs, alienation and choices that are challenging to both characters. With great talent, Guterson explores the limits of friendship, the pain of alienation, and the impact of illness. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 2, pp. 37-39:

Earlier this summer, for the first time in eleven years, I hiked in the valley of the South Fork Hoh, where John William and I went without a compass or matches two days after our acid trip, and where John William spent seven years living alone. The trail passes under -Sitka spruces, some more than five hundred years old, and under bigleaf maples hung with club moss. You would have to say that, given the presence of these maples, this isn't quite your classic rain forest but a variation, with the maples thriving amid cobbles and rockslides and in the glacial till of the river bottom. Rain on the South Fork Hoh is common, but on my recent walk there was no sign of rain-instead,  it was warm, and. a little dusty where the silt had baked in the sun on the north bank. Still, rain remains this region's most obvious feature in any season but summer. Notable, too, is the silence here, broken infrequently by the winter wren's trill--reminiscent of a hysterically played flute-at other times by the ventriloquy of ravens. Then there's the din of the river, fed by snow in the Valhallas and glaciers on Mount Olympus. In June, the South Fork Hoh runs gray and milky.. It's in places slow enough to suggest tranquillity, but elsewhere it's - extreme in its energy and. character. So this is a hike of disparate feeling, unfolding under a dense forest canopy broken by glades of arcadian maples. It's also a hike through lonely country, four and a half hours by car from Seat­tle, infrequently visited not only for this reason but because the main fork, a few miles to the north, has a better road and a visitors' center near its bank. More, the main-fork trail takes climbers to Mount Olympus, whereas the South Fork Trail just leads to deeper gloom and, eventually, into a canyon. Sometimes anglers will try the South Fork's upper stretches; even more rarely, a party of climbers will pass through on its way to the Valhallas, though I should point out that the first ascents of those peaks were mostly made in 1978, and none earlier than 1966, which should give you some idea of their remoteness. When John William and I first went there, in '74, wandering into Valkyrie Creek Basin and making camp on Valhalla Ridge, the pinnacles of Bragi, Mimir, Sleipnir, and Vidar North and South had not yet been climbed, and this wasn't because of their difficulties but because few climbers had gotten to them. They might have been busy with more accessible mountains, or maybe they hadn't noticed this part of the map yet, southeast of the town of Forks.

This June, I walked alone on the South Fork Hoh Trail, three days after the end of the school year, one day after the graduation ceremony held, because of foreboding skies, in our remodeled gym, where students hooted as I strode to the podium in order to recite, into all that space, underneath a raised basketball hoop, "The Road Not Taken." I have an annual date with Frost at this ceremony, and in the past have read the poem's well-known final lines with embar­rassed misgivings: "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference." Will the narrator's apparent self-regard accrue to me? Will the convoca­tion, seeing Frost's narrator as superior, see me as superior by asso­ciation? This year, after I cleared my throat, a student yelled, "C's all filthy!," meaning "Mr. Countryman's rich," and after everyone twit­tered, I delivered the Frost. The following day—the first of vaca­tion—I got up early, filled my thermos with coffee, made a sandwich, and drove away before first light, and, frankly, despite the things I like about my work, felt glad I was free to walk along the South Fork Hoh instead of teach. It's an easy journey in its lower reaches; in three miles a hiker gains five hundred feet, and after that, where the trail fades to moss, it's a matter of meandering across soft green flats or treading on gravel bars near the current. I found myself preferring moss to gravel, even though there's less gloom beside the water, because recently I've developed a Morton's neu­roma where the third and fourth toes on my right foot meet, and this makes me wince if I walk too many hours on unforgiving sur­faces like river stones. Pain gives me reason to stop more often than I once did. I take off my boots. I eat a little something, or shut my eyes for a few minutes. Sometimes I lie in the fetal position and try, unsuccessfully, to sleep in the forest. It was in this posture, in June, that I heard a trilling winter wren and, later, a raven. The raven's call was like water dripping loudly---like large drops of water striking a pool. It seemed to have nothing to do with nature; instead, it sounded like a plumbing problem. I wouldn't have thought it was made by a bird at all except that on other occasions I'd watched ravens make this noise, though even with such clear verification it's a note that still seems improbable and dreamlike. As does the past, sometimes.

John William and I, finished with high school, came at the South Fork Hoh from its headwaters, entering the woods at Boulder Creek Campground, and traversing the Bailey Range over four cloudless days, finally departing from published routes beneath Mount Olympus, where at close to eight thousand feet you can smell salt water on the wind. From there we found our way to the South Fork Hoh—which we didn't know was the South Fork Hoh, because we didn't have a map or compass, by intention-or, rather, to where it gathers in a moraine of icy water and wind-blasted scree, and then, walking in the river itself while the current wrapped around our legs, and using a climbing rope in watery belays, we came down from the high country in a canyon. Between rock walls, the falling water was so loud we couldn't speak to each other. Trees grew from clefts in the cliffs or lay askew in the current. It seemed to me our purpose was to drown. Climbing down vertical walls in a river was something you had to be young to try, a form of lunacy, and yet my friend's face was animated by happiness. Water dripped from his well-made chin. He'd come all this way commit­ting landmarks to memory, so that we might, if necessary, reverse our course, and there was something in this epic mental effort, I saw, that appealed to him as an adjunct to danger.


You get the sense that Guterson constructs each sentence by carefully deciding which word will be best, and never settles for anything short of that. The Other is an unrushed exploration of the choices of two individuals and the consequences of those choices, bound in a lifelong friendship.


Steve Hopkins, July 18, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

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