The OtherThe Other by David Guterson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

what a ripper read. or listen, in this case–i listened compulsively to the audiobook.

what is it about guys (it seems to be always guys) who want to run off into the woods, forsaking all civilization and human contact? for a contemporary american of the good old USA, it’s really compelling, is what it is. do other nations have this streak of willful hermitism, or is it just USns, cause we read too much Thoreau in high school? (and, as an extra-credit question, why isn’t it the women too?)

anyway. John William, scion of wealth, turns his back on it all at 21 and goes off to live in the woods. his friend, Neil, tries briefly to dissuade him, but in the end gives tacit approval by bringing him junk food and fungus cream every few weeks. Neil tries to understand what it is John William is either escaping or trying to move toward, depending on your point of view, but is never quite successful.

like a lot of books with extreme (and well-drawn) characters, when John William isn’t in the book, it loses a lot of steam. things become ordinary, quotidian. one could easily read this as making a point, however… Neil, who comes and goes between JW’s world and the “real” one, continues on with his “hamburger world” life and his supply runs. he gets married, has kids, gives up on becoming a famous novelist and becomes an English teacher instead.

and again, no spoiler here cause it’s in the first few pages of the book: John William dies in his mountain refuge.

and then, the mystery: what was responsible, who was responsible, how did John William get so weird, anyway?

to me (and i doubt seriously i am a typical reader here), how he got to be so weird is far less interesting than what he thought up in his mountain cave. but we are dutifully trotted through the explanations: bad mommy, distant daddy, girlfriend thought he was gay, shrinks burdened him with a lot of freudian cant. i suppose we are explanation-seeking beings: in an earlier age, John William might have been supposed to be a victim of spirit possession, or religious fervor, or later, we get psychology, and now we have psychology and genetics and brain chemistry. poor us! “spirit possession” might have been an easier label to bear, in society’s effort to grind everyone down to comprehensible, explicable, mind-numbingly dull normality.

ya, i’m definitely on John William’s side. aspirationally, anyway.

but i also love my purple people-eating couch, my magic carpet bed and my PS4, so i doubt i’ll be walking off soon. but i think about it, a lot.

society just can’t bear it when you reject society–a case such as John William’s is instantly pathologized all the way around. it’s the only explanation, right? he must be bent. but i’ve no doubt that even the hollow men stop to notice that there’s a good chance it’s society that’s bent, and to live in it destroys something essential.

anyway. ripper read. disturbing in all the best ways. bonus: some really beautiful nature writing (Guterson’s always so good at that).