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August 6, 2008 |

By Miscellaneous | Books | August 6, 2008 |

David Guterson is the critically acclaimed author of Snow Falling on Cedars, but his latest work doesn’t live up to the greatness of its famous predecessor. While Guterson’s prose shines, it isn’t enough to propel The Other past its overall insipidness.

The story is an old one. Two unlikely friends bond over some common interests. As teens, they are idealists and rebel against the constraints of society. As adults, things change. Of course, there are no new stories; it’s how they’re told that counts. Unfortunately, Guterson doesn’t offer much new in the telling, either.

The novel begins in 1972, when John William Barry, the wealthy son of two privileged families, and Neil Countryman, our narrator and the son of blue-collar carpenters, race one another at a track meet. We know from the novel’s opening pages that Neil is remembering these events as an adult; of the track meet, Neil writes, “That’s how I met the privileged boy who would later become ‘the hermit of the Hoh’…that loner who lived in the woods for seven years and who bequeathed me four hundred and forty million dollars.” This explanation removes much of the novel’s suspense, and although many authors often employ this technique, one wonders if The Other might have benefited had Guterson withheld such early explanation.

After disclosing news of John William’s death, Neil switches gears and details the birth of their friendship. Despite their differences, the two become friends, bonding over drugs, philosophy, and a love of nature. The two often first get stoned and then get lost in the wilderness of Washington. They argue about ideas, John William preferring the philosophy of the Gnostics.

Their friendship continues until college, when their paths begin to diverge. While Neil becomes an English major, John William just becomes weird, chaining himself to radiators in protest against the college and walking barefoot and bearded. Soon, John William drops out of college altogether, and then he gets really weird.

Eventually, John William totally withdraws from society, excavating a cave he’s found in the wilderness. He becomes a hermit, and Neil takes it upon himself to occasionally visit his friend and supply him with necessities. Meanwhile, Neil develops into a fully-functioning adult — a hypocrite, he says — with a respectable job, a loving wife, and two sons of his own.

Soon John William suffers the fate we knew was coming from the beginning, and Neil finds himself torn between his duty to society and his duty to his friend. In an effort to better understand John William and to atone for his own transgressions, Neil visits a few people integral to his friend’s development. While some might argue that the “life-altering revelation” (to quote the book’s jacket) sufficiently explains John William’s psychology and provides sufficient titillation, others might find the revelation underwhelming and unsatisfying.

The final revelation would be more fulfilling, however, if the characters were more likable. Unfortunately, The Other’s biggest flaw is its inability to make readers care for either of its protagonists. John William is an enigma; even after Guterson provides a few glimpses (that is, if a glimpse can be described as interminably long) into his childhood to explain his motivation, John William’s decision to retreat from society is never truly understood — nor is he likable enough to make up for it. Countryman is a more interesting character, but even he fails to move The Other from bland to stimulating.

The Other wasn’t an unpleasant read by any means, but it’s ultimately forgettable. Unless you’re a Guterson fan, you aren’t missing out by avoiding it.

Jennifer McKeown reads way too much and blogs about her experiences over at Bibliolatry.

The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind

The Other by David Guterson / Jennifer McKeown

Books | August 6, 2008 |

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