David Guterson’s new novel is no “Into the Wild”


Bainbridge author David Guterson mined a lifetime of memories for his latest novel, “The Other.”

Set in Seattle with forays into the Olympics and Cascades, the book follows two teenage boys as they grow into adulthood during the 1970s and take vastly different paths. The book’s narrator, Neil Countryman, graduates from the UW, teaches high school English, writes novels, and comes upon unexpected fame and fortune later in life. Sound familiar? Guterson admits Neil is nearly a mirror image of himself.

But Neil’s friend John William Barry is, in some ways, the Guterson that never happened. John William shares many of Neil’s values and his sense of right and wrong, but he takes his desire to live by his principals to an extreme, rejecting society as a whole and living the life of a hermit in the Hoh rainforest.

Like his previous novels, “The Other” gives its characters weighty questions to tackle. But this time around, Guterson allows a character to narrate. Guterson’s efforts in trying on a first-person narrative give the book a lighter, breezier feel than his previous novels. The heavy questions remain, but readers get to ponder them at a faster clip.

I talked with Guterson about the book last week and wrote a story (here) that largely deals with who John William is. Also interesting is who John William isn’t. Despite the parallels with some other well-known wilderness soul-searchers, Guterson says John William is a breed apart. I couldn’t fit this tangent of our discussion into the story, but I’ll toss out a few bits of it here.

First off, John William is no Chris McCandless, the subject of Jon Krakaur’s “Into the Wild.” Guterson was quick to make this point during our interview, perhaps in preparation for the types of comparisons the Los Angeles Times and other reviewers would make.

“I see a huge difference,” Guterson said. “(McCandless) was an American romantic. He had wanderlust and was interested in enthusiastically participating in the natural world and the world of people, and so he went on the road.

While both McCandless and John William meet their ends alone in the wilderness, Guterson says his character was not interested in meeting new people or freewheeling adventure. He wanted a deep separation from the people populating a world he felt was hopelessly corrupt. For him, nature not so much something to revere but something to escape into.

“Both wanted to be unencumbered,” Guterson said. “Both renounced one world to embrace another, but John William embraced a world that wasn’t human.”

John William also has strong parallels with poet and Beat personality Gary Snyder. Both are Seattle-born, attended Reed College, are steeped in Native American culture, take long sojourns in the wilderness and are devoted students of Zen Buddhist poetry.

Again, Guterson drives home the contrast.

“Snyder put himself far away (from American mainstream society) but he continued to stay engaged as a poet,” he said. “He didn’t drop out like John William did.”

Neil shared many of John Williams beliefs but, like Snyder, wanted to engage the world – despite its flaws – as a writer. Neil’s aspirations never sat well with John William.

In the book, John William chastises Neil for wanting to write “the great American novel,” and questions whether the motivation is money or fame.

I posed this same question to Guterson.

“There were things John William admired in writers,” he said. “Like a hermit, writers stand outside of society. A writer stands outside so he can write about it. In some ways he’s an alien. But John William sees writers as ambitious. They want to be read, they want to be recognized.”

“For myself, it’s true I want to participate. I don’t write to put it in a drawer and forget about it. I want to publish it and I want it to be read. I want to be engaged with other people through writing.”

As far as “The Other” is concerned, Guterson’s engagement so far has been with book critics. The LA Times trashed it, calling the novel “a flat-footed morass of trivia that suggests a bad rewrite of “Into the Wild.”

But most reviews, including the Kitsap Sun’s, have heaped the kind of praise Guterson earned with his debut novel “Snow Falling on Cedars.”

Outside Magazine somehow managed to compare the novel to a mountain lion. The Seattle Times and Post-Intelligencer issued positive reviews, and were more than a little tickled by the book’s Seattlecentric subject matter.

You can check the book out yourself tomorrow when Guterson debuts “The Other” at Eagle Harbor books in downtown Winslow.