David Guterson takes a long time to reveal where this story is going. At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to stick with a rambling first-person narrative about two teenagers in the pop music and drug culture of 1970s Seattle. But knowing from two of his other books how well Guterson tells a story, I trudged ahead until I found myself fully involved.
In brief, The Other is a detective novel about the making of a hermit. John William Barry, a brilliant but troubled young man, drops out of society to pursue a course his close friend Neil Countryman cannot understand. Bound by a brotherhood pact, Neil makes occasional treks into the Northwestern woods to supply his friend with food, literature and drugs, vainly seeking a rationalization for John William’s rebellion against everything except a murky obsession with Gnosticism. Pressed for explanations, he gives only enigmatic responses like “I’m going to slip past God – he can’t get me,” or “The stuff they teach you at school is just so they can own you.” As another character remarks of John William, “Everything – everything – was an ethical question.”
Along the way, Guterson indulges in what he does so well – expressing his relish for nature and outdoor adventure. Mountain climbing, hiking, camping and struggling against the elements are often characteristic of young people compelled to test themselves against their environment. John William and Neil often find themselves on common quests, but with contrasting goals.
Whether either reaches those goals is for the reader to ponder. Neil builds a conventional teaching career and raises a family. John William, despite his idealism, is a tragic figure, lost to the world long before losing himself in the wilderness.
I recommend this book enthusiastically for fans of interesting characters and descriptive prose, although occasional sexual and scatological references tarnished the experience for me.
Chevron Ross is a novelist. Check out his works at https://chevronross.net/