Two boys--John William Barry and Neil Countryman-- meet in 1972 at age sixteen, brought together by a fierce intensity and a love of the outdoors that takes them, together and often, into Washington's remote backcountry, where they must 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, convinced that it is the only way to live without hypocrisy. When John enlists Neil to help him disappear completely, Neil finds himself drawn into a web of secrets and often agonizing responsibility, deceit, and tragedy--one that will finally break open with a wholly unexpected, life-altering revelation--From publisher description.
Conspicuously missisng is any refernece to the world fair and the erruption of Mt. St. Helens. Why not throw a bone to the non-local reader just to give him some feeling of belonging to the story?
The main character is really boring, I suppose what most people would imagine someone who lived his whole life in Seattle to be. But the lack of color in the main character-narrator didn't detract in my eyes. The author certainly knows how to add color and passion to his characters and presumably purposely deprived this one if any in order to make room for the other more remarkable characters.
(To be continued with a discussion of the plot.)
A chance meeting with Neil Countryman leads to a life long friendship which endures, despite John William's retreat in to the Cascade mountains where he cuts out his own cave by hand and lives off the land. Neil visits him regularly and brings much needed provisions, but after suffering an accident himself, the worst happens to his friend. There is a deeply touching account of Neil coming upon John William's body and his need to leave his friend in a dignified manner. He respects the blood pact he made to his friend that he would never reveal his whereabouts. It is that which runs through the whole book......this promise and how hard it must have been to keep it.
I won't describe anything further..so as not to ruin it for the next reader.
Snow Falling on Cedars was a masterpiece......and this is almost as good. I recommend it.
Barry is a young man of considerable abilities who holds himself and everyone else to outrageous standards. He's an over-the-top idealist who depends on Neil to keep him in contact with the outside world. In fact, at length he separates himself from the rest of the world by going to live in a remote cave on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. From this height he comes to depend completely on the down-to-earth aid Neil can and does give him. Eventually a snowstorm prevents Neil from bringing up the needed food and supplies, and when he finally gets to the Other's cave, he finds him dead. Later, when the authorities finally find him, Neil discovers he is the sole heir to Barry's very considerable estate, hundreds of millions.
This is one of those stories that provokes the highest kind of speculation in me. As I ponder the relationship of the two men, how irresistible it is to think how the uncompromising idealist-hermit represents the higher, more virtuous plane, and how living on that plane necessarily alienates you from society. Our earth-bound narrator eventually receives a mind-boggling financial legacy - isn't it something like learning what true virtue is - in the sense that it is of inestimable value?
David Guterson has produced a masterpiece, a novel for the ages. His prose, as always, is wonderful, and is one aspect of the book that stirred these deep thoughts in me. Each sentence and paragraph serves the higher shining truth - is an exhibit of supporting evidence. I think he ranks as the finest living American author - alongside Marilynne Robinson. If you seriously read fiction, read this.
I originally bought this book because I have read everything else he has written. I haven't always liked his books but they have a certain feel of silence and calm that I like. Guterson is also an author from the Pacific Northwest and my original reason for purchasing this book was for a book club in which I once participated.
It took me three years to pick this book back up because I associated it with...well, just a lot of negative things that were going on when I started to read it. Spiritual reasons made me pick it back up. The timing was right on.
The story is simple. Two guys meet in high school at a cross country track meet and become friends and hiking companions in the Olympic Mountains. After high school, Neil goes to college and takes the traditional path participating in what John William calls "Hamburger World" while John William wanders, eventually settling in a cave on the Hoh River and becomes an ascetic of sorts.
The story is also not simple. There is a deep unconditional love between these two friends. Neil worries for John William and is constantly hauling things up to his cave through difficult terrain and all weather. Each time he asks John William to come back down with him but each time John William declines.Neil learns things: about simplicity, spirituality, the natural world and our connection to it. Neil worries that John William is mad. He isn't. This does not stop Neil questioning in ways overt and subtle and trying to understand John William. He goes so far as to help John William disappear. Neil comes from a blue collar family and has nothing but himself to give and he gives generously in this way to John William.
John William, while chiding Neil for his choices, does not try to stop him making those choices. He understands that Neil is also seeking but has stopped looking finding his joy in the everyday - college, marriage, children and the "Hamburger World." He understands that some people are able to sink into their lives and settle without addressing "the big questions". Through his asceticism, he knows that he will never stop looking and seeking answers to the big questions and that for him to understand, this is the only way. To fulfill his love for Neil, he gives him starter cash (an unasked for surprise) from his trust fund so that Neil may embark on his life. John William's family are old money Seattle.
One day, Neil returns to John William's camp to find him face down in his fire, dead. John William by this time has spent years up in his cave. Neil undertakes the ultimate task of unconditional love by preparing his friends body (crudely using nature's tools) and placing him in his cave to continue his existence undisturbed. Many years later, John William's body is found and in his (JW) last act of unconditional love and friendship for Neil, he leaves him a very wealthy man.
Each time Neil goes to the cave with supplies, he spends time with his friend. There are many conversations, the reading of poetry, discussions of Basho zen, work in the natural world and conversations. There are also silences filled simply. Sometimes each is absorbed in his own thoughts, sometimes they eat, sometimes they soak in a natural spa they created from a spring, sometimes they read and sometimes they just sit and watch the natural beauty and wonder of the area. It is in the stillness that a friendship transcends the mundane world and you can sit in silence with grace and have the whole universe speak between you in that silence. This is the rarest and most sought after of friendships.
Neil feels guilt for many reasons and the final chapter of the book is a meditation on how the first years of our lives shape us and in many ways shape the experiences we choose to have and the way we see the world. This is a subtle message that is actually woven through the entire book but is crystallized in the final chapter. The tears of man.
If the contemplative life does not move you, then you probably will not enjoy this book. Sometimes there is a lot of detail that on the surface seems redundant and may annoy the reader who prefers to "get on with the story". If you want to sit in the stillness of friendship and unconditional love, then I recommend this book.
But in time Neil settles for a conventional married life and teaching while John William is determined to live according to his beliefs, and starts to live a solitary totally self sufficient life in the Washington wilderness.
The Other is a story rich in detail, perhaps at times a little too much detail as Guterson can become bogged down in creating family histories and local connections. Roughly only half the book actually concerns the friendship the two boys and later young men enjoy. The rest looks into what made the two, and especially John William, what they are.
At its best it is a compelling and moving story, particularly when John William is living his life of recluse with Neil his only contact. But at times it can become a little laborious, and I began to wonder for a while if the book would ever get to discussing the character of John William and their friendship.
This review is from: The Other (Hardcover)
I got increasingly wrapped up in this novel: narrated by Neil Countryman, an English teacher of working class origin, whose life has followed fairly ordinary lines - marriage, children, an aim to write his own book. But Neil's life has another side - his friend since his teens, wealthy John William Barry. As John William moves from just being 'unusual' to dropping out entirely, living a bleak life of a hermit in the deepest, harshest forests of Washington State, Neil pays regular visits, bringing supplies and books, playing chess and discussing the belief of the former in Gnosticism... And compelled by an earlier 'blood oath' never to reveal his friend's whereabouts....
Vivid descriptions of nature and survival; the desperately touching account of John William (mad or wise? Driven to such extreme behaviour by parental failings?) For me the final message was that each man must forge his own path: despite Neil's efforts on his friend's behalf, he had to live his own life most of the time, leaving John William to go his own way.
Unique and extremely readable.
I liked this story because it does remind me of people I know. Page by page the friendship and adventures of Neil and John develop and along with this is the sense of understanding of John. You can see John’s way of thinking and the reasoning is laid out. While I may not have agreed, I understood. I liked the idea of inherited riches. Would you change your life if you could? How do you cope with a fortune placed at your feet? Where do you think your responsibilities lie?
This story made good use of curiosity. I had to turn the pages to see if John was a survivor or if he was going to throw in the towel. It is completely fascinating to see how John progresses in self-sufficiency. How Neil is affected by John’s decisions also kept the pages turning.
I would highly recommend The Other by David Guterson. It is a case study of the psyche and lays out some interesting moral questions. It is a page turner that will make you think long after the last page is read. I enjoyed it and feel enlightened. It is not a book to be passed over.