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Originally published Friday, May 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

Helping a friend go off the grid is a source of torment in Seattle-based "The Other"

"The Other" by David Guterson examines the dilemma that has confounded sages and saints for millennia: whether to engage in our tormented world, or turn our faces from it.

Seattle Times book editor

Author appearances

David Guterson

David Guterson will read from "The Other," available in bookstores Tuesday, at these locations:

• 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Eagle Harbor Book Company on Bainbridge Island (206-842-5332; www.eagleharbor books.com)

• 7 p.m. Wednesday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333; www.thirdplacebooks.com).

• 7 p.m. Thursday at Barnes & Noble in Seattle's University Village (206-517-4107).

• 7 p.m. Friday at the main branch of the Seattle Public Library. Co-sponsored by the Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).

"The Other"

by David Guterson

Knopf, 256 pp., $24.95

As a novelist, David Guterson explores the fissures in our divided souls. Attachment vs. alienation; moral behavior vs. expediency; joy vs. suffering — all these themes have been a life's work for the Bainbridge Island novelist, from his best-selling "Snow Falling on Cedars" to 2003's "Our Lady of the Forest." His new novel, "The Other," examines the dilemma that has confounded sages and saints for millennia: whether to engage in our tormented world, or turn our faces from it.

Narrator Neil Countryman is the apotheosis of a decent Seattle guy. A carpenter's son, Neil becomes a respected high-school English teacher, but one "with an unpublished novel in his desk drawer ... and three more in varying stages of disarray" (one of several autobiographical elements of this novel — Guterson was an English teacher before "Snow Falling on Cedars" became a runaway best-seller in the mid-1990s). His story begins at a 1972 Roosevelt High School track meet when, running dead last in the half-mile event, Neil finds himself straining to match the pace of next-to-last Lakeside student John William Barry.

"This guy, right here, running next to me, is a version of me," Neil thinks. "We both feel, romantically, that our running is transcendent."

But transcendence's opposite is despair. The blueblood friend Neil comes to think of as "my double" has a dark side. John William uses his gold-plated Lakeside education to obsessively study philosophy and religion, notably the Gnostic gospels, coming to believe that "the origin of darkness was in God himself."

John William is "the brooder in the back row," Guterson writes. "The rich kid who hates and loves himself equally. The contrarian who hears his conscience calling in the same way schizophrenics hear voices, so that, for him, there's no not listening."

After high school, the two divide up — Neil to the UW; John William to Reed College in Portland, where he becomes the campus character (no small accomplishment at Reed) and eventually flunks out. He retreats to a cave on the south fork of the Olympic Peninsula's Hoh River. At first, Neil thinks John William's retreat is a temporary lark, a rich boy's dalliance with the simple life. With growing unease, he realizes that John William means to stay put.

For the rest of John William's life, Neil abets his friend's predicament, abets his decision to go off the grid. Nursing blisters after helping John William hack a cave out of stone, Neil loses patience: "at last, because I didn't want to come to this place anymore, 'Why are we doing this?'

" 'No one's making you do anything.'

" 'Sleep in a tent.'

" 'I don't want to sleep in a tent.'

" 'What do you want, then?'

" 'I want peace,' said John William, 'so help me out.' "

Much of this story is mesmerizing, even heartbreaking. Another reviewer has noted that "Guterson sings the song of place with perfect pitch," and "The Other," by indelibly capturing the Seattle of the 1970s and '80s, becomes a testament to the city's breathless transition from a quirky, idiosyncratic town of working- and middle-class families to a metropolis for the nouveau-techno riche. The Barrys' brooding Tudor Laurelhurst mansion with its Space Needle-style interior; chess games at the Last Exit on Brooklyn; Neil's student rental that overlooks a cemetery studded with the stump-shaped headstones of Woodmen of the World — with these fine-grained details, Guterson displays his near-photographic memory for the fading details of our city's heritage.

Guterson is equally eloquent on the raw terrain of the Olympic Peninsula:

"The Hoh ... resembles mostly the scar of an excavation. The channels and cobbled islands on its floodplain have the sterile cast of an open mining operation. For long stretches, its gray pallor and gravel bars are broken only by logjams, and the root wads half buried in its silt look washed of color. ... it often seems as if a storm has wreaked recent havoc in the river, or freshly rearranged its course. It looks, in sum, just short of appalling."

But "The Other" has its flaws, notably harsh, two-dimensional portraits of some secondary but key characters. Ginny, John William's mother, is a Beat Generation version of "Mommy Dearest." His father, Rand, is so willfully detached he ignores his infant son's cries (and his wife's neglect of them) for hours, then ogles the check-in nurse as Ginny rushes their infant son to the Children's Hospital emergency room. Guterson's chronicle of John William's downward mental spiral is so vivid, the reader aches for answers, but crucial portions of his past are revealed through the voice/perspective of Rand, a guy I wouldn't trust if he said the sky was blue on a clear July day.

Nonetheless, "The Other" stayed with this reader for days after finishing the book. Neil Countryman is a rich, complicated Everyman, devoted to his friend in some way unfathomable even to himself: "I suppose I've thrown in my lot with love, and don't know any other way to go on breathing." He longs to do the right thing, and gropes in the dark for what that right thing might be.

And John William must go down as one of the saddest figures in contemporary literature — a bright young man swallowed by his own darkness. At one point, Neil remembers: "Then, out of nowhere, he was crying again, with the heels of his palms against his eyes, and as always, I turned away from it." That simple declaration almost broke my heart.

Most of us have a friend or loved one who dropped out, checked out and faded away. Could we have saved them? By choosing a different path, have we saved our own skins/souls, or merely preserved them? These are the questions "The Other" raises. Readers will spend a long time thinking about the answers.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@ seattletimes.com. She is the Seattle Times book editor and a director of the National Book Critics Circle.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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