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East of the Mountains

East of the Mountains

3.7 13
by David Guterson

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From the author of Snow Falling on Cedars comes this bestselling novel about a dying man’s final journey through a landscape that has always sustained him and provided him with hope and challenges.

When he discovers that he has terminal cancer, retired heart surgeon Ben Givens refuses to simply sit back and wait. Instead he takes his two


From the author of Snow Falling on Cedars comes this bestselling novel about a dying man’s final journey through a landscape that has always sustained him and provided him with hope and challenges.

When he discovers that he has terminal cancer, retired heart surgeon Ben Givens refuses to simply sit back and wait. Instead he takes his two beloved dogs and goes on a last hunt, determined to end his life on his own terms. But as the people he meets and the memories over which he lingers remind him of the mystery of life’s endurance, his trek into the American West becomes much more than a final journey.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A compassionate and masterful achievement.” —San Francisco Chronicle

”A strikingly joyful book and a monumental achievement.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer

“The writing is wonderful throughout, the characters are vivid…heartfelt, engaging and well drawn.” —The Miami Herald

“Profound and ambitious. . . . Guterson depicts . . . moral and spiritual struggle with a clear-eyed intensity and intelligence that gives East of the Mountains its essential authority.” —Chicago Tribune

“The shape is elegant, the tone is perfectly controlled, almost cool, and Guterson’s prose shines with [a] taut polish. . . .[He] is a craftsman with a sense of literary history, one of the most serious and accomplished young American writers.” –The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Guterson possesses a remarkable gift for capturing people and places, etching them into the reader’s mind.” –USA Today

“Elegiac . . . like his first novel, Guterson’s sophomore outing is a serious and surprising book. . . . A monumental achievement.” –The Philadelphia Inquirer

“In describing the world of a dying man, Guterson invokes the ultimate book of suffering–then, to his great credit, offers it here as a consolation rather than despair.” –The Boston Sunday Globe

“This book would be a challenge to praise too highly. It resounds with clarity. It feels like home.” –The San Diego Union-Tribune

“[Guterson] has produced a clean, unpretentious and expert piece of work, filled with the immediate beauty of everyday life and the desolation of leaving it behind.” –The Washington Times

“Wonderfully written, tender toward its characters, and full of incident and insight.” –Men’s Journal

Were 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.

—Sara Nelson

Janice Harayda
Soon everybody will be a potential client of Dr. Jack Kevorkian. The longer we live — and the more we learn about the terrors of end-stage diseases — the more likely it becomes that each of us will think of committing suicide. And novelists may be gentler than juries in judging the decision to end a life.

David Guterson signals his intentions early on in East of the Mountains. Christian theology holds that at the second coming, Christ will arrive from the east, and Guterson is not a man to take his symbols lightly. While more and more novelists have been turning out glib metaphors, Guterson defied the trend in his bestselling Snow Falling on Cedars by using cedars the way writers have used them for centuries: as a symbol of strength and durability. The similarly mythic title East of the Mountains points to a second coming of hope if not of a messiah. And that is what Guterson delivers in this quietly atmospheric novel about a terminally ill doctor who undergoes a kind of rebirth amid the lush apple orchards of the Pacific Northwest.

Ben Givens, a retired Seattle heart surgeon, suffers from metastatic colon cancer and knows too well the indignities that await him, "the bedsores and bone fractures, the bacterial infection from the catheter, the fluid accumulating between his viscera that would have to be expunged through a drainage tube." He knows, too, that there is no heroism in enduring them "but only fear of pain's alternative, the cessation of everything." So he has resolved to end his life amid the remote canyons of the Columbia Basin, making it appear as though he died accidentally on a quail-hunting trip. But his plans quickly start going awry. He meets a drifter who introduces him to the palliative powers of marijuana, a young couple in love who remind him of him and his late wife, and a pack of wolfhounds that mauls one of his dogs so brutally he has to seek help for it. And all these experiences become part of an unexpected journey of self-discovery.

As Guterson tells this meditative and autumnal story, he shows once again that he has a naturalist's eye for botanical detail. But he is better at evoking plants and trees than at filling out his characters. He works hard to invest Givens' ultimate decision with inevitability, but he never quite pulls it off, because the emotional arc of his hero's life keeps disappearing into reverential descriptions of the landscape. Guterson writes so lovingly of apples that East of the Mountains might carry the American Pomological Society's seal of approval. And though there is no small art in conjuring up a memorable Winesap, this gift is a distinctly lesser one than the ability to create characters who will remain vibrant long after the day's headlines about suicide have faded.

Pico Iyer
A worthy excursion from a deeply serious and accomplished craftsman...a kind of affirmation of open-hearted faith.
Time Magazine
John Leonard
With amazing grace, this novel becomes a voyage into another kind of American manhood.
Justin Cronin
A strikingly joyful book and a monumental achievement.
The Philadelphia Enquirer
David Bahr
East of the Mountains is a wholesome, all-American tale of war, wilderness and the will to survive—a sort of Jack London lite....Guterson weaves it all seamlessly together, in clean, sometimes fetching prose.
Time Out New York
Andrea Sachs
East of the Mountains is best read, perhaps, as a kind of firelit Steinbeck Western about how a deliberate man learns the virtues of having his plans overturned and comes to embrace a life he'd all but given up on. Some readers may find the novel a little too sweet-spirited and lacking in a strong enough sense of evil to make the triumphs of goodness seem earned. Yet as a response to best-sellerdom, the book has the bravery to strike off in a new direction.
Time Magazine
Kendra Nordin
There is no doubt of Guterson's skill as a writer and the timeliness of a novel grappling with a topic that holds national attention.
The Christian Science Monitor
Michiko Kakutani
...[O]ne man's tortured efforts to come to terms with illness and mortality....Ben's memories of...World War II, reminiscent of...Cedars, are by far the most powerful portions of this novel....visceral, uncompromising and harrowing...they remind us what this talented writer can do...
The New York Times
L.S. Klepp
[The book has] Guterson's subtle, elegiac style, infused with atmosphereic landscapes andhigh seriousness....sustained by the same consistent intelligence and moral vision [as Snow Falling on Cedars].
Entertainment Weekly
People Magazine
...Guterson's descriptions of whatever filters through Ben's mind...are impressively nuanced....lyrical images of hay fields, apple orchards and vineyards...
Memory...[leads] him inward to examine the forces that shaped him and his decision....Guterson's narrative moves, at times, with the insistence of a camcorder travelogue...
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Widower Ben Givens, a retired heart surgeon, has colon cancer. He plans one last hunting trip to the beloved Washington State orchard country of his boyhood, just him and his dogs--at the end of which he plans to kill himself. After all, he's a man who understands "the mortality of human beings." That's the tear-jerking setup of Guterson's follow-up to Snow Falling on Cedars, his acclaimed debut novel (and a big hit on audio). As Givens's simple plan goes unexpectedly awry--he crashes his car on a mountain road--he is led on an amazing soul-affirming odyssey. He is rescued by a beautiful young couple in their VW bus who ask nothing of him but his respect. Next, a journeyman hobo gives him marijuana to ease his cancer pain (and, as it turns out, expand his spiritual consciousness). Alone in the woods at last, he has a life-and-death showdown with a rogue landowner. Finally, his emergency doctoring skills are called on by Mexican migrant workers. The story, with its crisp action, works well on audio, coming across foremost as an adventure. Veteran narrator Herrmann plays up the sage qualities of his hero without milking the easy pathos of the situation too heavily. Simultaneous release with the Harcourt Brace hardcover. (Apr.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Mourning his wife's recent passing and facing his rapidly progressing colon cancer, retired surgeon Ben Givens decides on suicide rather than lengthy suffering for himself and his remaining family. After mapping out his demise in a shooting "accident," Ben drives into the mountains of Washington State for a final bird hunt with his Brittany spaniels. Almost immediately his meticulous plans are disrupted. A car accident propels Ben into unexpected physical and emotional terrain, where his subsequent adventures force him to reexamine his convictions about mortality, morality, and identity. Ben's odyssey is told in the controlled yet passionate prose that characterized Guterson's first novel, the acclaimed Snow Falling on Cedars (LJ 8/94). Guterson draws compelling characters and creates a haunting sense of place and of humankind's paradoxical relationship with the natural world; a passage describing a desperate encounter with a pack of Irish wolfhounds compares favorably with the best of Hemingway. Highly recommended.
— Starr E. Smith, Marymount University Library, Arlington, VA
— Jane La Plante, Minot State University Library, ND
Jeff Giles
...[A] generous, autumnal, meticulously written book....[It has] the heart and conscience of a literary novel, and the murder mystery at its core [keeps] the plot motoring along.
L.S. Klepp
[The book has] Guterson's subtle, elegiac style, infused with atmosphereic landscapes andhigh seriousness....sustained by the same consistent intelligence and moral vision [as Snow Falling on Cedars].
Entertainment Weekly
Robert Sullivan
When Guterson is at his best, the story and the landscape nearly become one....The question "Why go on?" is posed...nearly as often as the landscape is described...and the answer seems to be "Because life here is so beautiful." Guterson's philosophy is so bighearted and optimistic that it doesn't really allow for existential doubts or misgivings.
The New York Times Book Review
Joyce Carol Oates
...[A] strange, unwieldy hybrid, not believable as a myth and scarcely more believable as a realistic novel. It's a sort of geriatric "On the Road," lacking Kerouac's inspired, adolescent American goofiness in its pursuit of ambitious adult themes.
The New Yorker
Kirkus Reviews
The many admirers of Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars (1994) won't be disappointed by this affecting, often superbly lyrical account of the final hunting trip undertaken by an elderly westerner dying of colon cancer.

Echoes of Faulkner's great story "The Bear" and even Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" resound throughout the painstakingly detailed description of the journey that 73-year-old Ben Givens plans to end with a suicide arranged to seem his accidental death. He's a retired thoracic surgeon, recently bereft of his wife of 50 years, and a longtime resident of the Washington State wild country where he grew up on his father's "apple farm." Extended memory-flashbacks detail Ben's closeness to his widowed father and elder brother (who would become a WWII casualty), and his idyllic love for sweetheart Rachel, who would serve as an army nurse in France while Ben saw combat duty in Italy, bringing away from the war years both his bride and a commitment to save lives instead of taking them. Guterson juxtaposes these memories against a sequence of experiences that challenge the moribund Ben's resolve to die: he survives the wreck of his car and an attack by coyote-hunting wolfhounds; meets a couple who seem destined to live forever, a compassionate veterinarian, and, later, a tubercular migrant worker, then a girl enduring a dangerous childbirth-and learns that his life-giving skills remain unimpaired. The denouement feels both hurried and flat, and its ending uninspired-but it's rescued time and again by the beauty and clarity of Guterson's prose, a virtuosic blend of crisp declarative sentences and long, seductive, image-filled extended meditative statements.

Thinly imagined but quite beautifully written-and (the nicely named) Ben Givens's appealing integrity and compassion undoubtedly guarantee that his story will be another major popular and critical success.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage Contemporaries Series
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

On the night he had appointed his last among the living, Dr. Ben Givens did not dream, for his sleep was restless and visited by phantoms who guarded the portal to the world of dreams by speaking relentlessly of this world. They spoke of his wife — now dead — and of his daughter, of silent canyons where he had hunted birds, of august peaks he had once ascended, of apples newly plucked from trees, and of vineyards in the foothills of the Apennines. They spoke of rows of campanino apples near Monte Della Torraccia; they spoke of cherry trees on river slopes and of pear blossoms in May sunlight. Now on the roof tiles and against his window a vast Seattle rain fell ceaselessly, as if to remind him that memories are illusions; the din of its beating against the world was in perfect harmony with his insomnia. Dr. Givens shrugged off his past to devote himself to the rain's steady cadence, but no dreams, no deliverance, came to him. Instead he only adjusted his legs — his bladder felt distressingly full — and lay tormented by the unassailable fact that he was dying — dying of colon cancer.

    Three hours before first light in the east, wide awake and in defeat, he turned on his lamp, put his feet on the floor, and felt the pain bearing down in his side that plagued him through all his waking hours. He felt it where his colon, on the left, made a turn before dropping toward his pelvic cavity; if he pressed his hand into the flesh there, it produced a sensation of irritability seeping through his abdomen. Ben Givens put his fingers against it and began the insistent, delicate caress that had of late become his habit. He plucked his glasses from the side table, fitted their stems behind his ears, and once again probed his side.

    To the west the city where he had passed his adult years lay incidental to the force of the rain, and mostly obscured by it. Eastward the rain fell hard against the hills, but higher up on the flanks of mountains it turned to snow dropping silent against glaciers, on slopes of broken talus rock, and on wind-worn buttresses and outcrops. East of the snow-covered crests of the mountains the sky lay almost clear of clouds; save for a few last spectral wisps of vapor floating beneath the chill points of stars, one's view of the heavens was unimpeded. October moonlight illuminated hay fields, vineyards, sagelands, and apple orchards, and the land lay dry and silent. On the sloping, dark verges of the Columbia River, where Ben Givens had entered the world, the apples hung heavily from fragrant trees, and the windfall fruit lay rotting in the night, gathering a pale sheen of frost.

    Ben thought of lonely canyons, of how today he would travel eastward to wander in pale, autumnal light with his dogs quartering the ground in front of him and the quail holding when the dogs went on point — and then he rose with the unsteadiness of morning, shuffled to the bathroom still rubbing his side, propped one hand against the wall above his toilet, and waited with bitter, desolate impatience for the muscles of his pelvic region to recollect how to pass night water. He reminded himself that by dusk of that day — if everything went according to his plan — he would no longer be in this world.

Dr. Givens was a heart surgeon, retired, who had specialized in bypass operations. He had been admired by other doctors for his steadiness of hand, his precision, his endurance, his powers of concentration, and his grace. His assistants knew that when the heart was isolated — when everything human was erased from existence except that narrow antiseptic window through which another's heart could be manipulated — few were as adroit as Dr. Givens.

    Now he lived in a much-contained fashion: a restrained, particular man. At seventy-three he had a thick chest and broad shoulders, though the muscles in his limbs had gone soft. Since youth he'd climbed mountains and more mountains, and hiked many miles in all seasons. He'd walked in the high country every winter and snowshoed into lonely canyons. These past nineteen months, since his wife died, he'd returned to a haunting, autumn pastime: he'd hunted birds to shoot on the wing for the first time since he was a teenager. This was a pursuit that stole his soul shortly after Rachel's death, after he'd turned from his work as a surgeon and found himself with too much idle time.

    His face was weathered and furrowed, his eyes two dark shields. His coarse gray hair looked permanently wind-tousled, and he walked a bit gingerly, with a bowlegged gait, to keep the weight from his instep. He was so tall that, without thinking about it, he ducked his head to pass through doorways. His patients, in past years, had admired his hands: precise, large, and powerful. When he palpated their chests or listened to their hearts, they were infused with his professional confidence. Dr. Givens had believed fervently in medicine and deferred only grudgingly to its limitations. He had not readily accepted defeat and had struggled with the weaknesses of his patients' hearts as if those weaknesses were an affront to him personally. In this way he had removed himself so that when patients died on the operating table he did not have to feel unduly burdened. He did not have to feel haunted. The main questions for him had been tactical; the rest, he'd felt, was all mystery, and so beyond his governance.

    None of this meant that Dr. Givens was devoid of tenderness. His heart wavered when the truth of another's lay exposed and irreparable before him. Always at work he had been aware of his divine power of intervention, and of his helplessness, too. He understood the mortality of human beings and the fallibility of their beating hearts, though these things had kept their distance from him, until his own diagnosis. Now he'd been told — it was the dark logic of the world — that he had months to live, no more. Like all physicians, he knew the truth of such a verdict; he knew full well the force of cancer and how inexorably it operated. He grasped that nothing could stop his death, no matter how hopeful he allowed himself to feel, no matter how deluded. Ben saw how his last months would be, the suffering that was inevitable, the meaningless trajectory his life would take into a meaningless grave. Better to end it now, he'd decided; better to avoid pain than engage it. Better to end his life swiftly, cleanly, and to accept that there would be no thwarting the onslaught of this disease.

    As had been his practice since the death of his wife, Ben went out to let his dogs in the house immediately after rising. There were roses growing beside their kennel — summer damasks his wife had planted — and their stalks shone in the rain. The dogs were awake when he came their way to lift the latch to their fenced-in run, the wizened Tristan staring at him where he stood at four o'clock in the morning with an umbrella tightly over his head, the two-year-old Rex leaping high against the wire mesh as if to scrabble over with his forepaws. When Ben swung the gate wide, the young dog leaped and clutched him at the waist, then ran unbounded out into the rain, leaped at nothing, and returned.

    They were brown-and-white Brittanies — Rex ran more toward a bronze hue — with fawn-colored noses, tapering muzzles, and eyes well set back in their heads. They were both broad and strong in the hindquarters, and had little feathering at the legs. Tristan, in another time, had been boundlessly energetic; he'd had the habit of pursuing birds with earnest, exuberant good intentions. Now, in his later years, he was increasingly deliberate, more reluctant to plunge into thorns, and generally stayed closer to hand. His tendency to range had been quieted.

    When the dogs were coaxed in out of the rain, Ben fed them in the kitchen. He poured a tumbler half full with prune juice — constipation was one of his symptoms — then swallowed two capsules of Docusate sodium and set his tea water to boil. He was accustomed to reading a newspaper over breakfast, but at this hour the boy who brought it around was no doubt blithely sleeping. Ben laid out melba toast, orange marmalade, two small bags of lemon tea, and a jar of applesauce. He arranged a small plate, a knife and spoon, a bowl, and a cup and saucer. When the water boiled, he filled his thermos, then draped a tea bag over its lip to steep while he attended to breakfast. Despite his contest with sleeplessness, he felt keen of mind on this morning, as well as a calm, compelling urge to establish domestic order. There was a protocol to the day that would be pleasurable to follow, in spite of everything.

    The dogs lay easily at his feet while he ate and were still there when he pushed his bowl away, gently rubbed his tender side, and sipped his lemon tea. Both of them rose at the same moment he did and followed him soberly into the bedroom, where he took his gun case from the corner of the closet and slid his shotgun free. At this the dogs froze and looked at him with uncertain curiosity.

    Ben sighted down the barrels once, flicked the safety on and off, and broke the gun so as to hold it to the light and inspect the condition of the bores. It had once been his father's shotgun, a Winchester 21 side-by-side, choked for quail and chukars. It dropped an inch and a half at the comb, which was, as it turned out, right for Ben, but the length of pull that had worked for his father had not been entirely comfortable and Ben had added two inches to the stock butt. His father took him when he was eight years old to shoot mourning doves at the edge of the apple orchards. The doves flew up from the Columbia to feed, very swift and flocking wildly in the pale light of morning. Ben's father did not broach the subject of hunting's moral perplexity. He only showed Ben how to establish his lead, how to swing through smoothly and easily. Ben's mother, on the other hand, did not approve of bird hunting, and had made her sentiments known to them. Food for the table was necessary, she maintained, but pleasure in killing small birds on the wing was reprehensible in the eyes of God. Ben killed three mourning doves that day and watched them fall at the report of the .410 his father had placed in his hands. He buried their viscera, wings, and heads in a small hole in the ground. Their breast meat was dark and small in the flying pan, dusted with salted flour. He ate the meat with vague regret while his mother watched in silence from the sink, until after awhile she came near to touch his cheek. Then she went to the sink again and scrubbed the pan for him.

    Now, in the bedroom, the Winchester in hand, Ben snapped the action closed. He shouldered the gun and swung it along the picture molding, and with his forefinger lightly against the front trigger he squeezed off a silent shot at the seam where the wall met another wall. Rex pranced, high-stepping.

    Then Ben set the gun butt against his bed and wrapped his lips around both barrels, as though to fellate them. In this posture he ascertained that in fact the front trigger was just in reach; he had only to extend the full length of one arm, which pushed the sight bead against his palate. If he seized the shotgun in this way, wholly willing, embracing it, allowing the metal to prod his mouth, he could blow the top of his skull off without logistical difficulties. The knowledge that this was indeed possible, that such an act was not out of reach, suffused Dr. Givens with a glandular fear that washed through him like a wave.

    Ben put the gun down and packed for his journey with the same judicious deliberation that had been his foremost professional trait: he weighed everything at immoderate length, but made few errors in judgment. He packed his duffel with his upland vest, a box of twenty-five number 8 shells, his shooting gloves, his shotgun sling, a canvas cap with a canted brim, and a whistle hung from a lanyard. He loaded his rucksack with a headlamp and battery pack, maps of Chelan and Douglas Counties, an altimeter, a compass, an aluminum cup, three paraffin fire starters, a roll of waterproof adhesive tape, a medical kit, a needle and thread, an entrenching tool, a folding camp saw, a rain poncho, a length of Manila cord, a pair of field glasses, a vial of lip balm, a tube of sunscreen, prescription sunglasses in their case, a cigarette lighter, insect repellent, a snap box of water-purifying tablets, and a sandwich bag full of toilet paper.

    In the kitchen he filled his two water bottles, closed the thermos of tea securely, and turned all three on their heads briefly to check for leaks around the cap seals. He wiped them dry, wiped the table, and washed the breakfast dishes. He had hoped to move his bowels before leaving — the first hour in the car would stop them up firmly, sealing them closed for the length of the day — but he knew there would be no success to the enterprise should he endeavor to sit and wait on the toilet. That would swell his incipient hemorrhoids and encourage the frustration incited in his stomach when he could not void his bowels. Ben was sorry that at the heart of things this day he would carry the sensation of a poisoning fullness and a heavy reminder that he himself was now a blight on the world.

    He had taken much of the previous night to page through photograph albums, to read his files of correspondence, and to hold in his hand the earrings and lockets his wife, Rachel, had worn. He had found, in a box, a jar of her sewing buttons, a bulbous-head lavender wand laced with ribbon, a pair of her shoes, a pack of foxglove seeds, and a sketch pad less than a quarter filled with her pencil drawings of trees. He had unzipped the garment bag in the storage room closet and, yielding to sentimentality, burrowed his face into the dresses there in order to retrieve the faint smell of her. He had done like things all evening long and so had found in the endpages of books his mother's neatly fountain-penned signature, and in a hinged cedar box his father's pocket watch, its face glass missing for fifty years. After midnight he came across photos long forgotten, at the bottom of a box, most of Renee, his daughter.

    There were photos of him, too. He hadn't been handsome, but he'd been strong and tall, blue-eyed like his mother, lean-jawed like his father. There were photos taken in apple orchards, on the summits of peaks, in uniform, on leave in the mountains of northern Italy.

    Now it was morning of the next day. And Ben could not bring himself to extinguish the kitchen light and turn away quite yet. He listened to the hum of the refrigerator and remembered how Rachel had habitually commented on the taste of things they ate together — Jerusalem artichokes dug from the ground, or apples at their sugared prime. He remembered her, too, slicing carrots with a paring knife, the ball of her thumb a stop. Ben shook off his memories, turned out the light, and called the dogs from the living room. It was time to go away from there. It was time to begin his journey.

Dr. Givens kept in his garage a 1969 International Scout, which he used as an adjunct to his sporting life. He had purchased it new twenty-eight years before, and although since then he'd bought and sold other cars, he had not been able to part with the Scout for reasons he could not readily give voice to. He was not a man who fell in love with cars or spoke of them in endearing terms; nevertheless, he felt for this one a certain enduring fondness. The Scout was modestly well-preserved, but idiosyncratic in keeping with its age, with the tics and uncertainties of passing time. It included a four-wheel transfer case and locking hubs one turned by hand after coming to a halt on the road verge. Its heater fan made a hollow din, and through the moldings where the doors met the windshield — the car's top could be removed in good weather — the wind whistled tonelessly. More disconcerting was that the driver's side window regulator had developed with time a modicum of play: the pane chattered at high speeds and irritated Ben deeply. Twice in three years he had taken the door apart and peeled back the plastic vapor shield in an effort to address the problem. To no avail, however. The play in the regulator was fundamentally ambiguous, or perhaps organic to the entire apparatus, which was deteriorating in all its particulars.

    He slid his shotgun across the backseat and set his rucksack and duffel next to it. Then he slung down the rear door and entreated his dogs to load up, urging them to leap against their will. As it turned out, he had to lift Tristan in, because there was no room for a running start.

    He opened his garage door to the beating rain, but then it occurred to him he had not made certain that the house was left in proper order — the home of a man who intended to return at the end of an ordinary bird-hunting trip — and he went inside once more. He moved methodically from room to room, until he felt secure in his impression that nothing could prompt a postmortem inquiry, going so far as to leave on the kitchen table the 12-volt bird plucker he'd sent away for last Christmas but never used. He also pulled from a wall cabinet a small file-card recipe box and turned the recipe for quail on toast loosely on the diagonal. He left the box standing on the counter beside the sink with its hinged lid open.

    This strategy had possibilities, he realized, so he programmed his VCR to record a show called Great Railway Journeys playing on public television, and turned back a copy of Scientific American — a Christmas gift from Renee, his daughter — which he placed on his bedside table. He wished he had reserved some bills unpaid to leave behind on top of his dresser: he might have arranged them artfully to appear artlessly strewn.

    He had visited his family the evening before, eaten dinner with Renee and Chris, his grandson, in the pretense that everything was ordinary, but in fact to service his end-game ruse. He was going over the mountains, he'd said, to hunt for quail in willow canyons, he had no particular canyons in mind, he intended to return on Thursday evening, though possibly, if the hunting was good, he would return on Friday or Saturday. The lie was open-ended so that his family wouldn't start worrying until he'd been dead for as long as a week — so none would miss or seek him where he rotted silently in the sage. Ben imagined how it might be otherwise, his cancer a pestilent force in their lives, or a pall descending over them like ice, just as they'd begun to emerge from the pall of Rachel's death. The last thing they needed was for Ben to tell them of his terminal colon cancer.

    He sat at Renee's table with a fork in his hand, admiring her durable, quiet beauty — at fifty she was slender, thoroughly gray, aging in a poignant, tender way — and taking note of Chris's forearms, which were vein-cabled, thickly corded. He asked after his granddaughter, Emma, who had married a man from Wellington, New Zealand, and was rarely seen in Seattle anymore; he asked after Renee's husband, John, who was on a business trip. Ben urged Renee to talk about her work — she wrote screenplays for children's movies and had penned two highly respected scripts — but she was, as usual, reticent about it out of a native modesty and preferred to deflect the conversation toward Chris, who had embarked on his third year of medical school. He'd begun his clinics, he told Ben. He was seeing patients for the first time, but only for the purpose of asking questions and to practice diagnosis: he found it more interesting than labs. "What about a climb?" he asked out of nowhere. "We haven't gone since August."

    "Well, I don't know," answered Ben.

    "What about Silver Peak?" insisted his grandson. "Up in the pass. A shakedown cruise. A tune-up run. A day hike."

    "I don't know if I can do it anymore. My legs are beginning to wobble."

    Chris held a piece of bread in his hand. "What are you talking about?" he demanded. "You're still the toughest old goat in the mountains. Don't start talking like that."

    "I'm not the toughest goat in the mountains. That's you, Chris."

    "Silver Peak," said his grandson.

    They'd climbed together for fifteen years. Chris had been with him on fifty summits. They'd taken lunch on mountaintops, sprawled back easily on their elbows, peaks spread out before them. The boy was strong and confronted his climbs with an admirable good cheer. Ben enjoyed his company. Early he'd taken the boy to the mountains, but of late the boy took him.

    "All right, Silver Peak," Ben said, and it was this lie he found most disturbing now, as he stood in his bedroom arranging more lies. "We'll go up there when I get home."

    Ben decided he hadn't packed to produce the illusion he wanted. If this was at least a six-day hunting trip, beginning on a Saturday and ending on a Thursday, his outfit would certainly include more clothing, and so he gathered more together — socks, shirts, long underwear, and a worn pair of canvas-faced brush pants. In the bathroom he made up a full toilet kit, including a tube of hemorrhoid cream, a bottle of aspirin, his second pair of glasses, and his bottle of calcium gluconate pills for easing leg cramps at night.

    The truth was that at the end of this day of hunting, he intended to set his dogs free on the sagelands, hang himself up between strands of barbed wire — as if he'd been making a low fence crossing — and shoot himself in the carotid artery: shoot himself in the neck. Only his doctor, Bill Ward, would suspect the truth, but even Bill wouldn't feel certain about it, given all the evidence to the contrary, and anyway he wouldn't want to hurt anyone by suggesting that Ben had committed suicide. For Bill, Ben knew, there was a protocol about such matters, a principle governing them. Unless obliged by a coroner's inquest or an insurance agent's inquiry, Bill Ward would keep Ben's cancer to himself.

    Pausing in his bathroom, staring in the mirror, Ben recollected his pact with Rachel on the train from Mantua to Bressanone: that the ashes that were the remains of them both would someday make a bed for roses — his for a red rose, hers for a white: the two to grow and intertwine with the passing of many years. It had been the foolish desire of romantics, the sentimental vow of young lovers. It had been the sort of thing young people wish for in their recklessness and passion. He and Rachel, on growing older, had been amused by the idea of these roses, but had not let go of them, either. And he prayed now, thinking of her, that their pact might yet be consummated. He'd preserved her ashes in such a hope.

    But perhaps the price of his suicide was that such a thing couldn't happen, and he imagined his bones bleached to dust in the sagelands, scattered about by coyotes. He imagined, too, that his dogs might wander into hunger, hardship, death. He hoped they would somehow fend for themselves and find their way to another hunter, yet he still felt he owed them more than to abandon them in that expanse of empty canyons. His last meal, too, he understood — the breast of a quail, spit-cooked on a fire — would go to nurture nothing but the worms and maggots feeding on a dead man.

When he returned, Rex had jumped across the car seat and had his forepaws over the rucksack. Ben had to prod against his haunches in an effort to force him rearward, Rex resisting stubbornly until Ben caught him at the throat. He spoke frankly to the dog about his behavior, then turned the Scout's engine over. As always it expired momentarily and required a half dozen strokes of the accelerator before the choke sustained itself.

    Briefly, he sat idling in front of his house — a half-timbered Tudor, modest in scale — where the telephone answering machine was on, the heat set at fifty-five degrees, and the timers on the lamps in the living room and bedroom set at five and ten P.M., respectively. The rain beat hard so that the house seemed shrouded, beleaguered, and somehow reduced. A neighbor had been solicited to collect the daily newspapers and mail and to move the garbage out to the curb by eight A.M. Tuesday morning. Ben noted, to his satisfaction, that all had been left in proper order. He'd made his arrangements carefully, seeing that every detail was covered. To the last he'd attended to particulars.

    Working himself into a seizure of purpose, Ben drove away without looking back at his home of forty-three years. The rain rattled off the car roof, fell in long streaks through the arcs of streetlamps, and ran torrentially in the gutters. He could not see more than a few yards in front of him, even with the wipers barreling at full speed. Through the glass the streets he passed along seemed only half real, half formed. He leaned forward, squinting a little, switched on the defroster and made an adjustment to the heat lever. It was shy of six o'clock on a Saturday morning; no one else was on the road just yet. No other travelers, just Ben.

    On the interstate he poured a cup of lemon tea, steadying it before him on the dashboard so that it shed a crescent of steam against the windshield, and settled back in his seat. There was the high smell of dogs in the car, the sharp odor of their animal digestive tracts, the rain evaporating from their rank fur. There were whitecaps southward on Lake Washington as he crossed the wind-wracked floating bridge. To the north the water was a black expanse, and on the east side, beyond Mercer Island, loomed half-built exit ramps dressed in skins of intricate concrete pouring forms. The wind tore tired leaves from the alders and blew them onto the freeway. The long shore of Lake Sammamish, once a place of marsh and cattails, now lay throttled by condominiums, their yard lamps bathing the valley. At Issaquah, there were more lights: a Triple X Root Beer, a Texaco gas station, a Dairy Queen, Boehm's Candies. Then the last of the suburbs dropped away, and he was climbing the grade above Issaquah Creek beneath the rain-embattled trees.

    A tractor-trailer roared past on the right, and a sudden slap of road water, lashed from its tires, washed across his windshield. He could not make out the borders of the lanes or much beyond the rain in his headlights, as white as sleet and flashing rapidly like small electric sparks. Another truck passed, and then there was no one, and Ben took a sip from his lemon tea and fell into fretful meditation.

    His cancer had metastasized, traveling from the mucosa of his colon to the lymph nodes close to his tumor, and from there to sites in his liver. Each day he fortified himself once again to accept this intractable state of affairs; each day he started over. He was, he knew, incurable; he had seen too much in his years as a doctor to delude himself that things were otherwise. He knew exactly what to expect and could not turn away from meeting. After the bedsores and bone fractures, the bacterial infection from the catheter, the fluid accumulating between his viscera that would have to be expunged through a drainage tube; after the copious vomiting, the dehydration and lassitude, the cracked lips, dry mouth, tube feedings, and short breath, the dysphagia, pneumonia, and feverishness, the baldness and endgame sensation of strangling; after he had shrunk to eighty-five pounds and was gasping his last in a nursing-home bed — only at that point would Bill Ward put him down under a drip of death-inducing morphine. That was how his life would end if he did not end it first.

    He was well aware of countervailing arguments, but these, he saw now, had been forwarded by people not yet confronted by death. He, too, had articulated at times the consolations of a gradual dying: how the trivial paled in the face of death, yet the veins in the tree leaves and the evening slant of light were brought to the forefront of existence. How all was intensified, heightened, compressed, vivified, transformed, appreciated. How love deepened and ordinary tribulations sank into insignificance. How one had time for a summing up, days on which to meditate in search of a divine composure. Yet what had he really known of these matters even as soothing words about them flowed easily from his mouth? What had he fathomed of dying? Ben knew there were regions of pain so bleak they could not be traveled without surgery to sever nerves in the spinal cord. There were regions of pain so terrible, they obliterated all argument. The cancer-ridden, often, preferred to die as the only antidote to their suffering. Such was predominantly the case at the end; such might be the case for him, too.

    It did not seem to him cowardly to want to avoid pain. He had seen enough of it in his seventy-three years to understand its indifference to character, temperament, or virtue. There was no real bravery in enduring it, but only fear of pain's alternative, the cessation of everything.

    The biology of the body, which he'd confronted every day, had not in the least taught Dr. Givens to disbelieve in God. On the contrary, he had seen that the body was divine, and he had witnessed the ceasing of its processes often enough to know that something holy left the body at the very moment of death.

    It was sometimes possible — the perception came and went — to view the imminence of his own end with a calm, fearless detachment. In his grave he would experience nothing, the condition of death would not be painful, it was nothing, a kind of sleep. The problem, then, wasn't death but dying, and if the trial of dying could be got through — like any horrifying or painful ordeal — death, the other side, would be endurable. And so the best one could do, it seemed, was to remove the pain and horror from the process by choosing an intelligent suicide. A course well thought out, rational, the least of many possible evils. The worst of it was his present melancholy, and the illusion that after his end came, he would experience an eternal regret. In this nether-life he now endured, he experienced regret already. He felt no longer a part of the world. Everything reeked of the grave.

The rain fell even harder over Tiger Mountain, and by the time he had crossed the Raging River, he had slowed to fifty miles an hour. He passed Echo Lake and Rattlesnake Peak, and in the darkness of morning the hills all around — or what he could see of them through the veil of rain — were a bare shade darker than the sky. The faint first light from out of the east made the crests of the hills just distinguishable from the heavens, and as he traveled down the long grade to North Bend, the profile of Mount Si became visible. Ben had scaled it three dozen times, mostly to test his strength and endurance before more difficult ascents. Its abrupt black fault-scarp seemed to rise up directly from the lights of North Bend's main street, and the promontory of its summit — the Haystack, it was called — appeared forbidding against the sky.

    The highway began to climb in earnest, following the south fork of the Snoqualmie River, past Harmon Heights, Cedar Butte, Grouse Ridge, and the low summit of Mount Washington. Here the trucks worked around one another and the wind whistled through the window moldings. Ben passed the cutoff to McClellan Butte — another promontory he had climbed often — and the Tinkham Road cutoff where in the growing light he could see the river steaming. The rain was pummeling the flats along its bank and melding into its currents. Power lines traveled over the hills. As the light of morning grew more expansive, the mist tucked low in the valleys was revealed, and the first snow dusting the high couloirs. It occurred to Ben to follow his present heart and on the spur of the moment change everything, hike in the rain to the summit of Silver Peak, and there simply lie on the crest of the Cascades and wait for the end to come. The plan had a soothing elegance, and the prospect of succumbing to a hypothermic torpor was not really so dreadful. It was less like taking one's life than allowing it to be taken. One just stopped living, that was all.

    The mountains beckoned in this way, the green wet flanks of mountains breaking out into windswept scree and snow. Ben shrugged them off and continued on his way. He was bent on crossing into the country beyond. He had been born in the cradle of apple orchards, and it was this world he wanted to return to.

    Past Humpback Mountain the road turned north and began to climb more steeply. A trio of haul trucks, convoy-fashion, took the grade at thirty miles an hour in the far right-hand lane. The darkness had mostly given way to the low gray light of early morning, and Ben could see red huckleberry brush and vine maples on the hillsides. Everything glistened and swam with rain, and the creeks plashing down their deep-cut ravines were white and fast with it. The Scout seemed to float for sudden interludes, as if riding weightlessly on shallow surf — there was the spatter of water beneath the wheels and the sense of being unmoored from the earth — and then it would seize the road again. And there were the headlights of a car behind him now, and the taillights of two cars in front of him, shimmering beyond his windshield. Ben slowed to forty miles an hour and leaned tautly forward. The rain, the wet pavement, the trucks to his right, the windows around him fogged with the breath of dogs — the moment was so fraught with dangers that when Rex hurled suddenly over the seat to settle his forepaws again on the rucksack, Ben felt a surge of anger. The dog had to learn his place in things, as Tristan before him had. He had to understand how it was.

    Ben spoke beseechingly at first, then with urgent command in his voice, then with the low melody of gentle threat. When nothing happened — Rex did not move — Ben took him firmly by the collar. "Get back there," he said between clenched teeth, exerting himself to pull the dog off the rucksack, but Rex only whimpered and held his ground.

    Ben anchored himself against the Scout's steering wheel and tried to dislodge his dog. Half-turned in his seat, his hand behind him and locked at the dog's throat, he did not have time to correct or control matters when the Scout began to slide toward the median. He let go of the dog and swiveled forward, the car skating silently and as if in slow motion, and clutched the steering wheel. The Scout struck the concrete road barrier and rebounded across all four eastbound lanes, sliding miraculously between two haul trucks and down the summit exit ramp, where it slammed into a small fir tree.

Meet the Author

David Guterson is the author of a collection of short stories, The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind; Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense; Snow Falling on Cedars, which won the 1995 PEN/Faulkner Award, the Pacific Northwest Bookseller Association Award, and was an international bestseller; and the national bestseller East of the Mountains.

Brief Biography

Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound
Date of Birth:
May 4, 1956
Place of Birth:
Seattle, Washington
M.A., University of Washington

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East of the Mountains 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed East of the Mountains. I respect Guterson's ability to bring to these pages the very soul of this 73-year-old man. I wonder how he, as a younger man, got so much insight into what it would be like mentally to face such a thing as a cancer diagnosis at 73. Everytime I read a Guterson book I end up understanding men better, their depth of emotion, their motivations, their courage or lack thereof, the experiences they open themselves up to. I really appreciate the opportunity to gain this knowledge. I anxiously await Guterson's next book. He has a trememndous ability to take you there with his engaging descriptions of the terrain and culture. He is able to cross the great divide and communicate accurately the mind, will, and emotions of his characters. I connect with his works and am edified by them.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of my favorite novels. The trek Dr. Ben makes through the wilderness is heart warming. A true walk through lifeand the human experience. Cliff
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1_grammie More than 1 year ago
The story of Dr Ben Givens is one of hope in the face of terminal illness. Dr Ben finds that hope in the wilderness, fighting the elements with his faithful dogs on his final hunting trip. The empathy of total strangers who reach out to help him demonstrate the goodness of life and offer Ben a reason to fight for his life again. David Guterson has a way with description, painting a spectacular picture of the beauty of the American West.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I couldn't put this book down! It is heart warming, and heart wrenching. Sean Connery MUST star in a movie version!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a good solid read, but somehow lacking in the brilliance of his first novel. The study of a man who knows his end is near and his need to sum up his life is convincing, but this book just didn't have the soaring passages that made Gutersons' earlier work so great.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book makes you think alot about the true value of yout own life. I enjoyed it alot.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Guterson is a writer of great power. He enriches an already vigorous narrative style with vivid details of landscape, history, character, and mere work-a-day process, and tempers it with a mature sense of the human condition. This extraordinary talent met its perfect vehicle in Guterson's fine debut novel, 'Snow Falling On Cedars.' Unfortunately, 'East of the Mountains' falls short, largely because Guterson does not control an almost palpable urge to unleash his obvious talents on every event, scene, or character, human or otherwise, without restraint or sense of proportion. The constant booming of the big guns from Guterson's massive arsenal overwhelms this essentially introspective and thoughtful book. A few remarkable scenes justify big gun treatment, but ultimately deserve a better home. Amongst these is a riveting flashback to a WW-2 field hospital in Italy, where a dying soldier is wrenched miraculously back to life by a determined but nameless army surgeon, superbly portrayed in Guterson's meatiest prose. Other scenes in the novel deserve a lighter palette, but do not get it. A stern editor might have saved the day. But I still look forward to Guterson's next one....
Guest More than 1 year ago
East of the Mountains was a slow start for me and I liked it better on the second reading. It is not complicated or inaccessible, but it demands the reader's thought and attention because a lot of what is happening is between the lines. Absolutely worth the time.
Guest More than 1 year ago
it really satisfied me. very much. everything i wanted to happen happened. I will certainly be enjoying it again. thank you for the opportunity.