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From Barnes & NobleWere there no author's name printed on East of the Mountains, fans of the bestselling Snow Falling on Cedars would know within 20 pages that this new novel is also by Pacific Northwest wunderkind David Guterson. Reverent of place, carefully detailed of character, the author's second novel -- his first book was nonfiction, and he has published a collection of stories -- is as deeply felt and minutely evoked as his first. It will likely solidify his reputation as a latter-day old-fashioned writer, the kind of novelist who lovingly and carefully introduces his characters to his readers with the understanding that given enough time, they're sure to get along.
In East of the Mountains we meet Ben Givens, a recently widowed, retired heart surgeon in his 70s. As the book opens, Ben has just has found out that he has terminal colon cancer. Since he's not the kind of guy who allows himself false hope -- he's a doctor, remember -- and even less one who allows himself to be a burden to others, Ben devises a plan. He will have a goodbye dinner with his married daughter and his adult grandson (although they think it's just a regular family meal) and then go off on a central Washington State "hunting trip" -- a trip from which, of course, he will never return. The way Dr. Ben Givens sees it, suicide is not only the most expedient solution to his problem, it's the most moral.
This is a setup that is, of course, begging to be knocked down. (I can't help but think of Alison Lurie's recent The Last Resort, in which a crotchety old man -- in that case, an eminent nature writer -- tries to off himself to spare his family the horror of watching him die.) Is it ever acceptable to kill -- even when death is imminent and the victim is oneself? Even more, when someone has devoted one's whole life to staving off death, can he ever bring himself to cause it?
Knowing what an old-fashioned moralist Guterson is -- his nonfiction book is in praise of home-schooling for kids, after all -- it's hardly surprising that his Ben Givens soon discovers he can't go through with his plan. While Ben is out in the wild, he does a lot of thinking -- much of it about his beloved wife, Rachel, who died just a little over a year before; he recalls their courtship, their lifelong passion, the promises they made to each other (none of which include an acceptance of suicide). And then, Ben meets some real, live folks -- among them a young couple in a van; a drifter who offers strange, elliptical solace; and a pregnant migrant worker who needs Ben to bring her child into the world -- who make him question whether it is yet his time to go.
Those are the bare bones of the parable, but it is the hearty meat Guterson puts on those bones that makes East of the Mountains such a satisfying read. There's a bit of everything here: a boy's wilderness adventure story (except that the boy is a grown-up man), a love story, a saga of aging and missing connections (the scenes in which Givens is offered marijuana by the young couple who pick him up hitchhiking are among the most hilarious -- and most believable -- in the book), a tale of hubris and humility. You don't necessarily like Ben at the beginning -- he's an arrogant doctor know-it-all, you think -- but as he comes to discover hidden depths in himself, you, the reader, do too. There's also a matter-of-factness to Guterson's prose that slowly becomes irresistible and, interestingly, almost poetic in its laconism; it'll be a wonder if Clint Eastwood isn't tapped to play Givens in the film version. ("So why did you change your mind?" an acquaintance asks Givens about his failure to commit suicide. "Cowardice, mainly," Clint-as-Ben will reply: "Try shooting yourself. It isn't easy.")
OK, so maybe the critics will complain that the story takes too long to begin and that once begun, it ties up just a tad too neatly; there was that criticism of Cedars, too. But Guterson has a lovely, head-on way with a description that makes whatever initial wading in you have to do worthwhile. (Try this: "Ben opened his one good eye to a still and empty October morning in a motel room in Quincy, Washington. A nimbus of light, a gray corona, formed a halo at the curtains. The heater fan made a terrible racket. The air smelled of saffron and from the bathroom the toilet sang.") And once you get to know Ben, you'll be as taken with him as are the myriad strangers he encounters on his journey from and back to himself. Guterson fans have been waiting quite a while for a worthy follow-up to the beloved megadebut that was Cedars; East of the Mountains, in more ways than one, will reward them for their patience.