The Other

( 16 )

Overview

From the author of the bestselling Snow Falling on Cedars, a coming-of-age novel that presents two powerfully different visions of what it means to live a good life and the compromises that come with fulfillment.

John William Barry and Neil Countryman shared a love of the outdoors, trekking often into Washington's remote backcountry where they had to rely on their wits—and each other—to survive. Soon after graduating from college, Neil sets out on a path that will lead him ...

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Overview

From the author of the bestselling Snow Falling on Cedars, a coming-of-age novel that presents two powerfully different visions of what it means to live a good life and the compromises that come with fulfillment.

John William Barry and Neil Countryman shared a love of the outdoors, trekking often into Washington's remote backcountry where they had to rely on their wits—and each other—to survive. Soon after graduating from college, Neil sets out on a path that will lead him toward a life as a devoted schoolteacher and family man. But John William makes a radically different choice, dropping out of college and moving deep into the woods. When he enlists Neil to help him disappear completely, Neil finds himself drawn into a web of agonizing responsibility, deceit, and tragedy—one that will finally break open with a wholly unexpected, life-altering revelation.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Gorgeous, haunting.... A deeply considered tragedy of social alienation and hubris.”—The Washington Post Book World“A finely observed rumination on the necessary imperfection of life. . . . [Guterson's] books keep getting better.” —The New York Times Book Review“Elegiac. . . . An exploration of how one should live in a flawed world, the choices we make and the values they reflect.” —San Francisco Chronicle“Mesmerizing, even heart-breaking. . . . Guterson explores the fissures in our divided souls. . . . Vivid.” —The Seattle Times“Excellent.... As humane as it is compelling.”—The Philadelphia Inquirer“Guterson’s descriptions of light and shadow, of fir canopies and forest floors, are as strong as they were in Snow Falling on Cedars, dotting the pages like beautifully muted piano chords.... At its core The Other is a book about the roads we choose, and the subsequent regrets and what-ifs and I-wonders.” —The Oregonian“Guterson creates a visceral world.... The Other is ripe with color and sound and texture.”—Chicago Sun-TimesEW Pick. In 1972, two Seattle teens, working-class Irish boy Neil Countryman and tortured trust funder John William Barry, bond over their love of adventuring in the Northwest’s vast wilderness. Countryman, who continues on to college, marriage, and a career teaching high school English, narrates the story of helping Barry drop out of society to live a hermit’s life ‘without hypocrisy’ in a remote, self-excavated cave. [This plot] is the perfect scaffolding to support Guterson’s absorbing meditation on what it means to grow up, sell out, and lead an honest life. A.”—Karen Karbo, Entertainment WeeklyThe Other features an unclaimed $440 million inheritance and a mummified corpse found in Washington’s Olympic Mountains, but it’s no murder mystery. Guterson uses these circumstances as the backdrop to [a] tale of two Seattle friends [who] forge an unlikely friendship . . . With prose that’s as careful and quiet as a mountain lion, The Other asks, and helps answer, two of life’s most perplexing questions: How do we live in an imperfect world, and what are our obligations to those we love?”—Steven Rinella, Outside“[Guterson’s] most brilliant and provocative novel yet. . . . He presents the reader with the quintessential questions of value and choice that shape life. It contains all the elements of youth, idealism and compromise, by paralleling two very different lives.”—Bill Duncan, Roseburg (Oregon) News-Review“PEN/Faulkner Award winner Guterson constructs a sensationalistic story that in other hands might have emerged as a page-turning potboiler. Here, events unfold in exquisitely refined prose, which creates a plot as believable as any quotidian workday, while evoking an unforgettable sense of place in its depiction of Washington State’s wilderness. . . . Bonded by a mutual love of the outdoors, working-class Neil [Countryman] and wealthy John William Barry become lifelong friends despite cultural disparities. The bond holds as their adult paths diverge, Neil choosing to teach while John William retreats to a hermit’s life in remote woodlands. When Neil agrees to help his friend disappear, haunting questions of values, responsibility, and choice leave Neil–and the readers of this provocative fiction–to ponder the proper definition of a good life. Recommended.”—Starr E. Smith, Library Journal“Life presents crucial choices, although often they are not recognized as crucial at the time. Pick this course, choose that person, follow this instinct, postpone that decision–all can have profound effects on a life. This theme is the underpinning of David Guterson’s strong and evocative new novel, The Other [which] uses the unlikely friendship of two Seattle men to examine such important concerns as the formation of character, the influence of family, the choice of vocation, the allure of alternatives. . . . The Other has its roots in Robert Frost’s much-quoted poem, ‘The Road Not Taken.’ Guterson underscores that link by having the novel’s narrator–English teacher Neil Countryman–do an annual recitation of the Frost poem at high school graduation. . . . What shines brightly throughout The Other is Guterson’s resonant ability to evoke the delights and contradictions of Seattle and its surrounding territory. This novel is a native son’s love song to the Seattle in the later stages of the 20th century. A greasy burger at Dick’s is celebrated, as is the grandeur of the North Cascades. In Countryman and [his best friend, John William] Barry, Guterson captures many conflicting courses in Seattle life (and perhaps in his own character): city vs. country, civilization vs. wilderness, comfort vs. hardship, constancy vs. change, attachment vs. disengagement. . . . This fine, searching novel represents the mature talent of one of the Northwest’s leading writers.”—John Marshall, Seattle Post-Intelligencer“[A] must-read . . . The story of two boys, John William and Neil . . . John William pulls a Holden Caulfield and decides to turn his back on all his privilege and move deep into the woods. Neil is then left to erase John William’s trail–and see how long he can keep John William’s new life as a hermit secret.”—Marisa LaScala, Westchester Magazine“The provocative tale of two childhood buddies who take very different paths as adults. . . . John William Barry decides to drop out of society entirely [and] enlists Neil [Countryman]’s help to disappear, which turns out to be a complicated and tragic endeavor.”—New York Post“Involving . . . Guterson follows two friends as their lives take different courses. Neil Countryman and John William Barry first meet at a high-school track event in the 1970s. . . . While Neil embarks on a traditional life, pursuing a college degree and meeting a girl while backpacking in Europe, John William–a wealthy, misunderstood only child–retreats from society, excavating a cave in a remote part of the Hoh Valley where he hopes to live free from the pressures of modern civilization. Once Neil realizes his friend is serious about his Thoreauesque endeavor, he sets about helping John William and becoming an accomplice in his plans to conceal his whereabouts from his family. As the story shifts between past and present, Neil tries desperately to understand the friend he feels responsibility and kinship for even as their lives drastically diverge. . . . Guterson’s novel of friendship and ideas is a moving meditation on choices, sacrifices, and compromises made in search of an authentic life.”—Kristine Huntley, Booklist“In this philosophically provocative and psychologically astute novel, two boyhood friends take very different paths: The richer one renounces all earthly entanglements, while the poorer one becomes unexpectedly wealthy beyond imagination. Once again, Guterson writes of the natural splendor of his native Pacific Northwest, though the ambiguity of isolating oneself in nature, rejecting family and society in the process, provides a tension that powers the narrative momentum to the final pages. There are parallels between this story and Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction book Into the Wild, as the novel relates the life and death of John William Barry . . . who forsakes his elite destiny to achieve posthumous notoriety as ‘the hermit of the Hoh.’ What distinguishes Guterson’s novel is the narrative voice of Neil Countryman, who has been Barry’s best and maybe only friend . . . When a novelist scores as popular a breakthrough as Guterson did with Snow Falling on Cedars, a long shadow is cast over subsequent efforts. Here, he succeeds in outdistancing that shadow.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred)
Publishers Weekly

Guterson (Snow Falling on Cedars) runs out of gas mulling the story of two friends who take divergent paths toward lives of meaning. A working-class teenager in 1972 Seattle, Neil Countryman, a "middle of the pack" kind of guy and the book's contemplative narrator, befriends trust fund kid John William Barry—passionate, obsessed with the world's hypocrisies and alarmingly prone to bouts of tears—over a shared love of the outdoors. Guterson nicely draws contrasts between the two as they grow into adulthood: Neil drifts into marriage, house, kids and a job teaching high school English, while John William pulls an Into the Wild, moving to the remote wilderness of the Olympic Mountains and burrowing into obscure Gnostic philosophy. When John William asks for a favor that will sever his ties to "the hamburger world" forever, loyal Neil has a decision to make. Guterson's prose is calm and pleasing as ever, but applied to Neil's staid personality it produces little dramatic tension. Once the contrasts between the two are set up, the novel has nowhere to go, ultimately floundering in summary and explanation. (June)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

In his fourth novel, PEN/Faulkner Award winner Guterson (Snow Falling on Cedars) constructs a sensationalistic story that in other hands might have emerged as a page-turning potboiler. Here, events unfold in exquisitely refined prose, which creates a plot as believable as any quotidian workday while evoking an unforgettable sense of place in its depiction of Washington State's wilderness. Middle-aged narrator Neil Countryman, lately the recipient of an enormous and unexpected inheritance, traces the roots of this windfall back to an equally unexpected encounter at age 16 with a fellow runner on a Seattle high school track field. Bonded by a mutual love of the outdoors, working-class Neil and wealthy John William Barry become lifelong friends despite cultural disparities. The bond holds as their adult paths diverge, Neil choosing to teach while John William retreats to a hermit's life in remote woodlands. When Neil agrees to help his friend disappear, haunting questions of values, responsibility, and choice leave Neil-and the readers of this provocative fiction-to ponder the proper definition of a good life. Recommended for most fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ2/1/08.]
—Starr E. Smith

Kirkus Reviews
In this philosophically provocative and psychologically astute novel, two boyhood friends take very different paths: The richer one renounces all earthly entanglements, while the poorer one becomes unexpectedly wealthy beyond imagination. Once again, Guterson (Our Lady of the Forest, 2003, etc.) writes of the natural splendor of his native Pacific Northwest, though the ambiguity of isolating oneself in nature, rejecting family and society in the process, provides a tension that powers the narrative momentum to the final pages. There are parallels between this story and Jon Krakauer's nonfiction book Into the Wild, as the novel relates the life and death of John William Barry, whose mother and father come from two of Seattle's wealthiest families, but who forsakes his elite destiny to achieve posthumous notoriety as "the hermit of the Hoh." What distinguishes Guterson's novel is the narrative voice of Neil Countryman (perhaps an unfortunate surname), who has been Barry's best and maybe only friend since the two competed at a track meet. On a hike into the wildness, Barry forces his blue-collar buddy to swear a blood oath never to reveal this secret spot to anyone. That oath is tested when Barry disappears from society and enlists his friend's complicity in covering his tracks. The first one in his family to attend college, Countryman becomes an aspiring writer who supports himself as a high-school English teacher, and who marries and raises a family. Yet if Barry is ostensibly "the other" of the title, so is Countryman, whose bond with a friend who may have a severe (possibly hereditary) psychological disturbance seems stronger than the one he shares with anyone else. Ultimately, Barryrewards Countryman for the latter's complicity in keeping a secret and helping the hermit sustain himself, but the greater reward for Countryman is the material that becomes this book. When a novelist scores as popular a breakthrough as Guterson did with Snow Falling on Cedars, a long shadow is cast over subsequent efforts. Here, he succeeds in outdistancing that shadow. First printing of 150,000
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307274816
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/2/2009
  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 624,764
  • Product dimensions: 5.18 (w) x 7.96 (h) x 0.83 (d)

Meet the Author

David Guterson is the author of three previous novels and a story collection, The Country Ahead of Us, The Country Behind. His debut novel, the #1 best-selling Snow Falling on Cedars, received the PEN/Faulkner Award and the American Booksellers Association Book of the Year Award. He is the author of East of the Mountains and Our Lady of the Forest.

Biography

Like many great writers before him, David Guterson draws on the rich local culture of the Pacific Northwest for inspiration in creating unforgettable characters and settings. Guterson credits many influences on his writing, beginning with his father, Murray Guterson, a distinguished criminal defense lawyer: His father's example taught him first and foremost to choose a career he would love, which also meant making positive contributions to the world.

Guterson was intrigued by the narrative of his father's cases. He often sat in on trials, but never felt the urge to become an attorney. When he started college, after one week in a creative writing class, he decided to become a writer. He eventually studied under Charles Johnson (author of Middle Passage), developing his ideas about the moral function of literature, and concluded that it is the obligation of writers to present moral questions for reflection.

As Guterson honed his writing skills, he investigated a variety of jobs that would afford him the time to practice his craft. He finally chose to become an English teacher, mainly because he wanted to surround himself with great books and authors. He moved to Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound, teaching at the local high school, writing short stories, and freelancing as a journalist for Sports Illustrated and Harper's magazine.

During his years as a teacher, Guterson discovered another major influence in To Kill a Mockingbird. "No other book had such an enormous impact [on me]" he has said of Harper Lee's splendid Southern classic. "I read it 20 times in 10 years and it never got old, only richer, deeper and more interesting." He admits freely to borrowing many of the novel's structural and thematic elements for his own 1994 tour de force, Snow Falling on Cedars.

Although it was not his first book (he had previously published a collection of short stories and a treatise on home schooling), there is no denying that Snow Falling on Cedars -- ten years in the making and a true labor of love -- put Guterson on the literary map. Set in 1954 on an island off the coast of Washington State, the novel tells the intertwined stories of an interracial love affair and a murder trial that divides a community still haunted by its shameful wartime past. Critics responded ecstatically, calling it "haunting" (L.A. Times), "compelling...heartstopping" (The N.Y. Times Book Review), and "luminous" (Time magazine). The book went on to win the 1995 Pen/Faulkner Award; and the following year, Guterson was named to Granta's list of Best Young American Novelists.

Far from prolific, Guterson writes slowly and with great deliberation, averaging a book every four to five years. Blessed with almost preternatural descriptive skills, he is known as a writer's writer, polishing sentences to pristine perfection and creating stories of elegiac grace. He is disarmingly candid about the difficulties of his craft, claiming that each literary endeavor brings with it a paralyzing fear of failure that slows the process even further. "It doesn't matter who you are, how many awards you've won, how popular you are, or how much critical acclaim you've had," he has said. "When it comes time to sit down and write the next book, you're deathly afraid that you're not up to the task." Fortunately for his many fans, Guterson's misgivings seem totally unfounded!

Good To Know

When he won the 1995 Pen/Faulkner award for Snow Falling on Cedars, Guterson quickly recognized the reclusive Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird for his success. He wrote to Lee asking her to come to the award ceremony in Washington, D.C., but being a highly private woman, she didn't attend.

Snow Falling on Cedars was adapted for a 1999 film of the same title, directed by Scott Hicks and starring Ethan Hawke. The movie received an Academy Award nomination for cinematography.

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

Read an Excerpt

No Escape from the Unhappiness Machine

I attended Roosevelt (the Teddies, Teds, or Roughriders), a public high school in North Seattle, while my friend John William Barry was a student at Lakeside, our city’s version of an East Coast private academy like Phillips Exeter or Deerfield. Besides slumping at my desk all day and getting high in Cowen Park at lunch, I also ran the 880—today called the eight-hundred-meter or the half-mile—for the RHS track team. It was a good niche for me. You didn’t need to be fast or have the wind of the distance runner. Mostly what you needed was a willingness to sign up. As a sophomore in 1972, I was a good enough half-miler to represent RHS with a time of 2:11.24. To put this in context, the world record in ’72 for the half-mile was held by Dave Wottle, with a time of 1:44.30. Roosevelt’s best half-miler of all time is Chris Vasquez, ’97, at 2:01.23. This is a race that takes runners twice around the red cinder oval found behind many high schools—I say this so you can imagine me losing to Vasquez by about thirty yards, or think of me still rounding the last bend, at the far end of the grandstands, while Wottle is crossing the finish line, arms raised victoriously. Either is a useful picture of me—of someone intimate with the middle of the pack. There’s good and bad in that.

I remember one race more vividly than others. It’s ’72, so Nixon is president, though he and everything else, the world, seem far away from Seattle. I’m sixteen and wear my hair like Peter Frampton’s and a mustache like Steve Prefontaine’s. (Because of this mustache, I’m sometimes referred to at school as “the Turk,” after the guy in the Camel cigarette ads. I’m not Turkish, but my mother’s father, whom I never met, was what people call Black Irish, and possibly I inherited his coloring.) I’ve got on hi-cut satin shorts and a satin jersey emblazoned with Roughriders, and I’m at the starting line along with seven other runners, six with better qualifying times than mine. Despite them, I’m a believer that if the ninety-nine-pound mother in the apocryphal story can lift the front end of a Volkswagen off her crushed toddler, I can win today.

I’ll dispense with the obligation to describe the weather—whether or not it was a sultry afternoon, with clouds of newly hatched mayflies above the track, or a windless May day smelling of moist turf and mown grass, is beside the point—and cut, literally, to in medias res: the eight of us stalwart and tortured young runners rounding the third curve of a high-school track and coming up on 250 yards. It’s my usual MO—out front early and counting on adrenaline to keep me there, but with heels nipped and a sinking feeling that’s anathema to winning. A race is a conversation with yourself, motivational in quality, until somebody interrupts by pulling away from you, and then it becomes an exercise in fathoming limits. Losing is like knowing that, in the movie scene where a thousand die but the hero lives, you’re one of the obliterated.

The right track term is “running in a pack.” That’s us—a band of runners hardly separated. One keeps exhaling humidly on my shoulders. Another’s left forearm hits my right elbow on its backswing. A runner pulls up beside me—the way a freeway driver pulls even in the adjacent lane to take your pulse—and I assess his chances with a panicked glance. Not strictured yet; striding with more ease than I feel; biding his time; relaxed. Working up a freshly adrenalized surge, I gain a quarter-step on him, but purchased with the last of my reserves.

The early leader in a half-mile race rarely crosses the finish line first. But he wants to have had the experience of leading—that’s part of it—and he’s perennially hopeful that, this time, things will be different in the home stretch. I still feel that way in the early part of curve three: that I might have heretofore undiscovered deposits of leg strength and cardiovascular capacity, not to mention will, at my disposal, all this against the grain of my foreboding. It turns out that my foreboding makes sense; at the curve’s apogee, I know I’ll flag, and with that, the flagging happens. Three runners pass me, going strong.

I’m needled by regret. Why don’t I have a better strategy than running as fast as I can from start to finish? I’ve squandered my energy; I’ve incurred too large a deficit. But it isn’t in me to plan; I just run, as my coach says, on unfocused emotion. These other runners, by the halfway mark—end of lap one, where we’re lashed on by friends and exhorted by teammates, a small fire zone of screaming and technical advice—are just stretching out and finding a rhythm, while I’m already in a battle with depletion. I drop to sixth, dragging with me a familiar sense of failure.

Then, on the back stretch, the runner in seventh tries to pass me, too. To anybody watching we’re in a pointless and even pathetic battle between losers, but for me what’s happening feels critical. Against good tactical judgment—it’s a move that slows you—I indulge in another assessment of an opponent: like me, long-haired; like me, in earnest; like me, goaded forward by, the word might be, convictions. In other words, this runner is approximately my doppelgänger.

Ask any track coach. The half-mile is a race for unadulterated masochists. Neither a sprint nor a distance event, it has the worst qualities of both. It’s not a glorious race, either. A lot of people can name a sprinter or two—Carl Lewis, for example—or a famous miler like Roger Bannister, but can very many name even a single half-miler? No athletic romance attaches to the half-mile. It’s not a legendary or even notable feat to beat other runners over 880 yards. At track meets, the half-mile contest is somehow lost between more compelling competitions, an event that unfolds while fans thumb their programs or use the bathroom. Into this gap of a race, this sideshow, step runners in search of a deeper agony than they can find elsewhere. They want to do battle with suffering itself. It’s the trauma they want, the anguished ordeal. It’s the approximately two minutes of self-mortification or private crucifixion. All half-milers have a similar love of pain. So this race is an intimation and an opening. In two minutes’ time, you get a glimpse.

I do, on the afternoon I’m telling about. There’s a kind of synchronicity that can happen in a running race, and it happens now. We run in tandem, my near doppelgänger and I. In running parlance, we match strides. I’m measuring him, as he, no doubt, is measuring me—all the while throwing ourselves forward into fresh pain, so that there are two perceptions, pain and the close presence of another agonized half-miler. In parallel this way, and canceling each other out, we’re neither of us ahead or behind for maybe forty-five seconds. That’s an unusually long time to run neck and neck in the 880. I’m oxygen-deprived, so everything looks well lit and startling, and from this perspective I see what I probably wouldn’t see otherwise. This guy, right here, running next to me, is a version of me. We both feel, romantically, that our running is transcendent. How do I know this? From running alongside him. I also have the benefit of hindsight.

Thirty-four years have passed, but I still remember how, in the final five yards, my double frees himself—like a shadow in a cartoon or a mirror-figure in a dream—and beats me by three-quarters of a stride.

I’m bent over and spent, my hands on my knees after the race, breathing hoarsely and looking at the ground, when he comes over to shake my hand with what I think at first is a grating sincerity. The grip is vigorous. The expression is heartfelt and, post-race, ruddy. The stance is upright, the posture exclamatory. This is gracious victory personified, and for a moment I think—it says Lakeside on his jersey—that what I’m seeing is obligatory patrician good manners, a valorous lad with his cursory and vapid Victorian Well done! while his heaving breath subsides. But no. He’s just fiercely putting forward what he feels—he’s honest. There’s a sentiment to be noted, life is short, and he doesn’t want to just pass by. “Thanks for the push,” John William declares, between bouts of sucking wind. “I just about died.”

That’s how I met the privileged boy who would later become “the hermit of the Hoh”—as he’s been called by the Seattle newspapers this spring, in articles mentioning my name, too—that loner who lived in the woods for seven years and who bequeathed me four hundred and forty million dollars.

...

My name’s Neil Countryman. I was born in this city of wet, high-tech hubris, which was called, at first, maybe with derision, “New York Alki,” meaning “New York Pretty Soon” in Duwamps. Besides me, there are seventeen Countrymans in the Seattle phone book, and all of them are my relatives—my father’s two brothers; their sons, grandsons, and unmarried granddaughters; and my two sons. We’re close-knit, as we sometimes say about ourselves. Over the years, we’ve closed ranks around deaths, accidents, follies, and addictions. On the other hand, we shy away from intimacy as if such shyness was a value. We don’t ask each other the more difficult questions. I’m generalizing, of course, but a Countryman who wants to go his own way will find, among his relatives—universally on the male side—straight-faced if sometimes dishonest approval. Clannish as we are, we believe in privacy, even when it’s obvious that someone you love is making a terrible mistake.

As a boy I enjoyed, with my sister, Carol, Laugh-In, Get Smart, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. We lived in a ranch house in the northeast part of town, modern for its time and built by my father, with an intercom system my mother used to call Carol and me from the rec room. My family went on summer vacations in-state, sometimes to Ocean Shores, but always to Soap Lake, in the sagebrush interior, where we would join other Cavanaughs—my mother was a Cavanaugh—for an annual rendezvous. At Soap Lake, my mother liked to loll around on a blow-up mattress and drink Tab. Once, I lost a beach ball in the wind, and by the time I noticed, it was a quarter-mile out. My mother brought it back, breathing hard but looking athletic. I remember how surprised I was, when I was eight, to see her so competent on a pair of skis at Alpental. I was under the impression that we’d gone to Alpental so that Carol and I could slide down a hill on inner tubes while our parents stood around with their hands in their pockets, but instead my mother, on rentals, disappeared up a chairlift and materialized much later to spray snow at my father with a stylish hockey stop. My father brushed off the snow as if it was lint on a tuxedo, which was his idea of humor. He was compact, with a recessed hairline and long sideburns, tight-lipped when corrected, and famous among my cousins for his forearms, which bulged like bowling pins. I remember him stretched out on the Cavanaughs’ steep roof after it was damaged by a fallen tree, his head downslope, a hammer between his teeth, reaching with his left hand to start a nail by stabbing it into a rafter until it stuck there. My father was a finish carpenter first, but he was also a pack rat. He brought home, from his jobs, used refrigerators and freezers, washers and dryers, coils of plastic pipe, and rolls of scavenged wire, and stored it all in our backyard under an open-air shed he’d built out of salvaged materials. When he got older, he drove a Corolla, but he didn’t listen to its radio very much, because, as he said, it was more interesting to listen to its motor. He also felt it was useful to smoke a Camel before heading for the bathroom. When I asked him if he got bored in there, he told me he read the Post-Intelligencer, starting with the obits, first to see if anyone he knew had “kicked,” second to mull the ages of the deceased in relation to his own years, so that he’d remember not to feel sorry for himself.

For a while, my mother sang with the Merry Mavericks—about a dozen men and women with a Peter, Paul and Mary look but an Up with People sound. They performed at Christmas in the Food Circus at the Seattle Center. My mother was a soloist. Hitting her high notes, she sounded like Judy Garland. I remember her coming off the stage dressed in red-and-green satin and taking Carol and me across the food court for caramel corn. Carol and I were glad when all of this was over, because we only liked pop tunes. In fact, the first album I bought, the summer after eighth grade, was Bread’s On the Waters, because “Make It with You,” sung by David Gates in falsetto, moved me. In wood shop, I built speaker cabinets out of low-grade walnut, then installed tweeters, woofers, and de rigueur large woofers from SpeakerLab. I traded a cousin some speakers like this for a battered drum set, and he showed me how to play the opening licks, complete with cowbell, of “Honky Tonk Woman.” For two years, I washed dishes at a Mexican restaurant for $2.65 an hour, partly to fund drum lessons from a burned-out but still-hip jazzman. I kept a fish tank in my room, went bowling sporadically, and played hockey on roller skates. I had a normal interest in girls, which I admit is a declaration dispensing with the subject, so I will add that I was the sort of hapless boy who came away from cheap encounters with the blues.

John William and I were of the generation that was slightly late for the zeal of the sixties and slightly early for disco. The most popular song, I think, in ’74, was “Takin’ Care of Business” by the Bachman-Turner Overdrive, though the Doobie Brothers were also esteemed. In Seattle, white guys wore flares, shags, and Pacific Trail jackets; white girls wore sailor pants or 501 jeans and let their hair fall around their faces. We were seven when JFK was killed, twelve when King was killed, and fourteen when four students were killed at Kent State, but by the time we were old enough to fathom “the Zeitgeist” (a term getting play in ’74), there was détente, H-bomb drills were quaint, and there was no more draft. Always on the front page of the Seattle Times was inexplicable news, for a teen-ager, of tariffs and wage and price controls. Who cared? Gerald Ford became president in ’74 and began hitting people with golf balls, apparently, thousands of miles away from Seattle. Everything, in fact, was thousands of miles away from Seattle. It was the portal to the North Pacific. It was where you outfitted to travel in Alaska, gateway to the Last Frontier.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Introduction

The questions, discussion topics, and suggested reading list that follow are intended to enhance your group’s discussion of David Guterson’s The Other. The story of a young man who chooses to live in isolation in Washington State’s Cascade Mountains–told by his closest friend–it is a moving exploration of the clash between personal ideals and moral responsibility, the demands of friendship and the price of honoring them.

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Foreword

1. Neil describes John William at sixteen as “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” [p. 10]. Have you encountered people like John William in your own life? In literature? What makes him a believable character, rather than a stereotype?

2. Does Neil also represent a familiar type or character? What makes him interesting or appealing to you? To John William? What distinctive characteristics (strengths and flaws alike) inform the way he tells John William’s story? Consider the qualities that Neil admires in John William in contrast to how he describes himself.

3. Neil and John William are brought together by their love of the outdoors and in particular for hiking in unmapped areas. Does John William spur Neil to take risks he otherwise would avoid? What aspects of their feelings about risk come to light when they get lost in the forest [pp. 29—34]? In what ways do their attitudes about the adventure echo their feelings about their lives in general?

4. To what extent do John William’s activities at Reed [pp. 70—83] as well as his decision to drop out of college reflect the cultural and social milieu of the 1970s? Does Cindy’s rejection of him mark a significant turning point for John William, or does it simply reinforce his perceptions of the world?

5. How does his upbringing affect John William? Would he have turned out differently if Ginnie had remained with the family? Does her decision to leave make her the villain of the story? Are there aspects of her conductthat evoke your empathy or sympathy? Is Rand oblivious or indifferent to his son’s problems or is he incapable of dealing with them? How do Neil’s portraits of them change and deepen as the novel unfolds? Does he become more accepting of the Barrys’ flaws, and if so, why?

6. Throughout The Other, there are references to Gnosticism, a philosophical and religious movement that emerged during the early Christian era. A central theme of its teaching is the world is imperfect, but that each of us has a divine spark within that can ultimately free us from the evils of material world. Does John William’s obsession with Gnosticism enhance your understanding of his motivations and behavior? What other references to literature and philosophy in the novel illuminate the themes Guterson is exploring? Discuss, for example, the references to Emily Dickinson and Thoreau [p. 86], to Robert Frost [passim], and to Rudyard Kipling’s “The Miracle of Purun Bhagat” [p. 167].

7. What effect does Neil achieve by alternating accounts of his own experiences with his reports on John William? How do their encounters as they grow older illustrate Neil’s contention that “In a friendship, you don’t so much change terms as observe terms changing” [p.112]?

8. How do you feel about Neil’s complicity in enabling John William to escape from the real world? What moral imperatives underlie his actions? Is he guilty of betraying the fundamental ethical obligations he has as a member of society?

9. In his course Nature in Literature, Neil tells his students, “poetry and nature are occasions for introspection, but not necessarily for happiness” [p. 28]. Is John William seduced by a naïve, romantic view of the relationship between man and nature? Is he prepared for life in the wilderness? What does he learn about his strengths and limitations as he struggles with nature’s unpredictable, difficult, and often cruel challenges?

10. Does his flight from civilization bring John William the spiritual purity he is searching for? Could he have found another way to express his antipathy to the hypocrisy he sees in the ordinary world? Do you think that he knowingly set out on a path to self-destruction?

11. Is the relationship between Neil and John William a healthy one? What emotional satisfaction does it provide for each of them? Does Neil’s role in John William’s life influence his behavior as husband, father, and teacher?

12. Was Neil ultimately right to keep John William’s secret for so long? How do you think John William’s mother and father would answer?

13. Neil writes, “In the newspaper reports on the hermit of the Hoh, an abiding derangement is the heart of the matter. That’s wrong” [p. 112]. Does Neil’s account of what happens to John William justify this point of view? Would a more objective observer draw the same conclusion from the evidence Neil provides?

14. How does The Other compare to other accounts, either fiction or nonfiction, about people who have exiled themselves from society? If you have read Into the Wild (or have seen the movie), what similarities do you see between John William and Chris McCandless? Discuss the diverse reasons, either rational or not, a person might have for abandoning a comfortable life for one filled with risk and danger. Discuss how Guterson’s decision to tell such a story in the form of a novel differs from Krakauer’s nonfiction approach.

15. This is a book chiefly about a friendship between two boys, yet in many ways the women they love shape the men they become. What roles do the women in the novel–Neil’s mother, who dies when he is in high school; John William’s mother, who abandons him when he is still a child; Neil’s loving and supportive wife; and John William’s college girlfriend–play in the lives of the two main characters?

16. How does inheriting John William’s money change things for Neil–if it does at all? Do you think that it is inheriting the money that allows Neil to finally devote himself to writing, or is it the chance to get John William’s story off his chest? Would John William want a book written about him? Is Neil exploiting his friend in any way?

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Reading Group Guide

1. Neil describes John William at sixteen as “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” [p. 10]. Have you encountered people like John William in your own life? In literature? What makes him a believable character, rather than a stereotype?

2. Does Neil also represent a familiar type or character? What makes him interesting or appealing to you? To John William? What distinctive characteristics (strengths and flaws alike) inform the way he tells John William's story? Consider the qualities that Neil admires in John William in contrast to how he describes himself.

3. Neil and John William are brought together by their love of the outdoors and in particular for hiking in unmapped areas. Does John William spur Neil to take risks he otherwise would avoid? What aspects of their feelings about risk come to light when they get lost in the forest [pp. 29-34]? In what ways do their attitudes about the adventure echo their feelings about their lives in general?

4. To what extent do John William's activities at Reed [pp. 70-83] as well as his decision to drop out of college reflect the cultural and social milieu of the 1970s? Does Cindy's rejection of him mark a significant turning point for John William, or does it simply reinforce his perceptions of the world?

5. How does his upbringing affect John William? Would he have turned out differently if Ginnie had remained with the family? Does her decision to leave make her the villain of the story? Are there aspects of her conduct that evoke your empathy or sympathy? Is Rand oblivious or indifferent to his son's problems or is he incapable of dealing with them? How do Neil's portraits of them change and deepen as the novel unfolds? Does he become more accepting of the Barrys' flaws, and if so, why?

6. Throughout The Other, there are references to gnosticism, a philosophical and religious movement that emerged during the early Christian era. A central theme of its teaching is that the world is imperfect, but each of us has a divine spark within that can ultimately free us from the evils of the material world. Does John William's obsession with gnosticism enhance your understanding of his motivations and behavior? What other references to literature and philosophy in the novel illuminate the themes Guterson is exploring? Discuss, for example, the references to Emily Dickinson and Thoreau [p. 86], to Robert Frost [passim], and to Rudyard Kipling's “The Miracle of Purun Bhagat” [p. 167].

7. What effect does Neil achieve by alternating accounts of his own experiences with his reports on John William? How do their encounters as they grow older illustrate Neil's contention that “in a friendship, you don't so much change terms as observe terms changing” [p.112]?

8. How do you feel about Neil's complicity in enabling John William to escape from the real world? What moral imperatives underlie his actions? Is he guilty of betraying the fundamental ethical obligations he has as a member of society?

9. In his course, Nature in Literature, Neil tells his students, “poetry and nature are occasions for introspection, but not necessarily for happiness” [p. 28]. Is John William seduced by a naïve, romantic view of the relationship between man and nature? Is he prepared for life in the wilderness? What does he learn about his strengths and limitations as he struggles with nature's unpredictable, difficult, and often cruel challenges?

10. Does his flight from civilization bring John William the spiritual purity he is searching for? Could he have found another way to express his antipathy to the hypocrisy he sees in the ordinary world? Do you think that he knowingly set out on a path to self-destruction?

11. Is the relationship between Neil and John William a healthy one? What emotional satisfaction does it provide for each of them? Does Neil's role in John William's life influence his behavior as husband, father, and teacher?

12. Was Neil ultimately right to keep John William's secret for so long? How do you think John William's mother and father would answer?

13. Neil writes, “In the newspaper reports on the hermit of the Hoh, an abiding derangement is the heart of the matter. That's wrong” [p. 112]. Does Neil's account of what happens to John William justify this point of view? Would a more objective observer draw the same conclusion from the evidence Neil provides?

14. How does The Other compare to other accounts, either fiction or nonfiction, about people who have exiled themselves from society? If you have read Into the Wild (or have seen the movie), what similarities do you see between John William and Chris McCandless? Discuss the diverse reasons, either rational or not, a person might have for abandoning a comfortable life for one filled with risk and danger. Discuss how Guterson's decision to tell such a story in the form of a novel differs from Krakauer's nonfiction approach.

15. This is a book chiefly about a friendship between two boys, yet in many ways the women they love shape the men they become. What roles do the women in the novel—Neil's mother, who dies when he is in high school; John William's mother, who abandons him when he is still a child; Neil's loving and supportive wife; and John William's college girlfriend—play in the lives of the two main characters?

16. How does inheriting John William's money change things for Neil—if it does at all? Do you think that it is inheriting the money that allows Neil to finally devote himself to writing, or is it the chance to get John William's story off his chest? Would John William want a book written about him? Is Neil exploiting his friend in any way?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 16 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 17 of 16 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 30, 2008

    Into The Cave I Stay

    The Other is about John William Worthington Berry who isn¿t comfortable living in any world and because of this discomfort he is obsessed with death and living off the grid. John Twelve Hawks describes living off the grid superbly in his book ¿The Traveler¿. At sixteen John William meets Neil Countryman and together they explore their intensity and love for the outdoors. Berry drops out of college leaving the wealth of his family behind and becomes a hermit¿he craves out a cave and lives in it. Countryman becomes a teacher, gets married, and starts a family. The friendship is a true friendship yet it¿s a love-hate relationship. John considers Neil a sell-out and Neil feels enough is enough and spends years trying to talk John back into the world. As the story unfolds we learn how John William developed his way of thinking. The Other, for me, was not an easy read but an enjoyable one. After reading a chapter or two I had to pick up other books just to shake off its darkness. I believe readers who are interested in psychology or anthropology will enjoy The Other because it¿ll get their minds going. I wouldn¿t be surprised if The Other becomes required reading for students.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 12, 2008

    A reviewer

    I love books of nature and I went into this book with great expectations. Although some parts were brilliant and detailed very well, a lot of the book comes across as filler and have nothing to do with the plot. If you read a lot of books you will learn quickly what to skip and what matters in this novel. 256 pages were 56 pages too many.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted June 15, 2011

    Didn't care for it.

    Enjoyed Snow Falling on Cedars but not this one.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 12, 2012

    Off the grid

    Seeing the transformation John makes as he lives amongst the wild out doors is fantastic. Not Guterson's best work, but still a great read.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted March 23, 2012

    Rich - But Unfulfilling

    I absolutely love David's writing style. He paints a vivid picture that evokes meories and emotions long forgotten. I felt like I was on the journey with the writer telling a true story. Unfortunately the story didn't really pay-off for me. A lot of time was spent filling in the back story in the second half of the book, but by the time we got there I still didn't completely understand either of the main characters motivations. It became just another bizarre intimate look at a life. Interesting - just not fulfilling of the promise. Maybe I missed the point.

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  • Posted December 16, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Curiously intriguing point of view

    We talked about unreliable narrators in our writing group a little while ago, and even tried an exercise using an unreliable point of view. Afterwards I tried to think of books that might illustrate the technique. Though I couldn't remember particular ones, I knew I'd read passages, maybe even whole books, written from the point of view of a self-absorbed beauty who thinks everyone loves her, a nervous investigator who thinks he'll never succeed, a religious preacher who's totally convinced of his own point of view. but I couldn't recall reading any literary fiction where the unreliable narrator told the whole tale. Then I read The Other, by David Guterson.

    I love Snow Falling on Cedars and Our Lady of the Forest, so I was expecting to find The Other would be similarly delightful. Instead I found something that read much more slowly and didactically, and a narrator who seems to totally miss the cues of normal human interaction.

    For a while, the story carries the narration. The detailed references to recent history and culture are fascinating. The scenery of Washington's backcountry is beautifully rendered. And the mysterious John William is sufficiently odd that we want to know what has happened / will happen to him. But it's when the narrator meets his future wife that the turning point is reached. Do we want to read more from this strange point of view-the details certainly entice-or do we simply not believe the story anymore? At this point, Neil Countryman, narrator, becomes something different from the everyman we might have imagined. His point of view is consistently odd, his loyalty prodigious, his diligent observation truly intriguing, but his assumptions about the thoughts and behavior of others almost deliberately miss the mark.

    The scenery's stunning. The forest is alive. The characters are real and wonderful-yes even Neil. And the story is one that stays after the last page is read, leaving readers to wonder, just what was it about Neal that drew them in, in spite of disbelief, and which person is the "other" of the title, tragic John or incurious Neal?

    I might not have finished the book were it not our book group's choice for last month. But I'm very glad I did. It's a slow, fascinating, absorbing read, with a perfectly rendered narrator who's wholly reliable and true to himself, but beautifully illustrates the power of unreliable narration.



    Disclosure: I bought this book in a bookstore because we'd chosen it for our group to read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 17, 2010

    Who is "The Other"?

    Although Guterson can be a bit wordy at times, and there were parts of the novel that can be skimmed, overall this was an excellent read from an eloquent writer.

    Readers will find a little bit of John William in themselves. His dissatifaction with the world and its materialism is at the forefront of current events today and gives the reader a lot of food for thought. Neil Countryman is provides a better representation of the average Joe and most readers will easily identify with him. He proves how easy it is to get sucked into the "American dream" of home ownership, a wife, two kids, and a car, which often causes people to leave behind the industrious dreams of their youth. John William is the oposite of this picture and escapes from it into what becomes insanity.

    Ultimately, the reader is left to decide who "The Other" really is. Is it John William, who chooses to live his life on his own terms? Or is it Neil, who chooses to live in "hamburger world", just like the rest of us? Perhpas the real answer is that we are all "The Other", as we only know ourselves in a superficial manner, which is at the crux of John William's turmoil.

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  • Posted December 27, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Guterson catches the reader off guard at the end as one reviews the plot, characters, and considers the meaning of the title. The "other" turns out in the end to be the reader, who, like the main character, should be making "other&am

    The reader's first realization is that one would not like to be like any character in this book. The second "ah ha" moment comes in the days after finishing the book when the reader admits he/she is all too much like each of the flawed characters, and is forced to agree with the protagonist that whatever most of us are doing with our lives, perhaps we should be doing "something else," even if the choices he makes are not the ones most of us would care to select. The question remains, "What then would be a better way to spend one's time on this planet?" The author has the last laugh when the reader sees that he/she has not been reading about some "other" characters, but about himself/herself.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 12, 2008

    John Williams decline is heart breaking

    I was captivated by the characters, especially John William. I am a Guterson fan having read 'Snow Falling on Cedars' and 'East of the Mountain' but felt he had a thesarus readily available while writing 'The Other'. Sometimes the language was pretentious. John William's decline was painful to witness.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 19, 2008

    Rare Read

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book. David Guterson's writing is like raw silk, rich in origin of material with just enough striations to keep you turning the pages until late into the evening. This is especially a good read if you were of age at the end of the Vietnam war era.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 20, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted February 19, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted March 5, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 24, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 30, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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