The Other by David Guterson. Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. 256 pages
When Neil Countryman finds himself running in tandem with John William Berry in a half-mile race — a race in which the two teenagers are trailing far behind the other sprinters, both make a valiant effort “not to be last.” When the exhausted Neil (the narrator of this novel) loses, he notices that the victorious John William (seventh in a race of eightrunners), bears a striking resemblance to himself — “my near-doppelganger,” he says. Thus begins an unlikely friendship between Neil, a blue-collar Irish youth and the troubled John William (J.W.), a product of one of Seattle’s most famous (and wealthy) families.
The two friends appear to have nothing in common. Neil has a warm, stable relationship with his family, whereas J. W. despises his parents and steadfastly refuses to participate in their world of privilege and culture. Neil wants to become an English teacher; J.W. talks of discovering a way to “escape the unhappiness machine” (his metaphor for the material world). Their only bond is a love for the natural world and a delight in treks into the “North Cascades Primitive Area,” a remote region noted for glaciers, dangerous camping conditions and (until recently) uncharted wilderness.
In one memorable trip, Neil, J. W. and Pete Jenkins, another friend (who brings along a copy of Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels), become hopelessly lost in a bleak part of the Cascades that had once been occupied by the Hoh Indians. Within three days, they are experiencing near-starvation conditions. Subsisting on bug larvae, tree bark, trapped birds and worms, they spend 14 days of aimless wandering before they finally emerge on a Canadian highway.
Rather than being chastened by this experience, J. W. and Neil (Pete has had enough!) return to the Hoh Valley in the Cascades again and again. After one exhilarating trip, the two friends make a “blood pact” by cutting their palms, clasping hands and swearing that they will never reveal the location of their campsite: a remote cove containing a sulfur spring (which they convert into a kind of natural hot tub) and backed by a limestone cliff. J.W. vows to return and live here the rest of his life, passing his time carving a cave in the cliff, learning to trap, perfect his “woods craft/survival lore” and reading the “Gnostic Gospels.” Shortly after this incident, J. W. makes a final effort to become a part of what he calls the “hamburger world” by registering at a small college where he quickly develops a reputation as an ecology nut and misfit. This episode also includes a painful first-love encounter that leaves J.W. even more disillusioned.
Convinced that his only alternative is to withdraw to his remote campsite in the Cascades, he packs and, like Tom Sawyer, “heads to the territories.”
Although Neil has enrolled in a small college and is well on his way to becoming a teacher, he seems incapable of breaking his bond with J.W. For the next seven years, he continues to make irregular trips to J.W.’s campsite, bringing his “blood brother” supplies: canned goods, tools, books and Playboy magazines.
At this point, The Other appears to be a bittersweet tale of a blighted friendship, but gradually another, more subtle theme emerges. As the years pass, Neil watches J.W. become increasingly embittered and inept. It soon becomes evident that “the hermit of the Hoh” cannot survive without the canned goods and supplies. Neil’s repeated attempts to lure his friend out of the wilderness are futile. Again and again, Countryman decides to abandon J. W. and each time, he returns with yet another load of supplies, only to be met by taunts and insults (Neil eventually marries and becomes a teacher ... a “lackey” in J.W.’s opinion!). The relationship seems at a hopeless impasse.
I have no intention of revealing the remainder of this fascinating novel. Like the doomed Christopher in Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, J.W.’s motives for rejecting the world where the majority of us live cannot be dismissed as the misguided rant of a misfit. In addition, David Guterson (Snow Falling on Cedars, Our Lady of the Forest) has a gift for revealing the hidden bonds that link us with others.
(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. He can be reached at email@example.com.)