Sunday, June 15, 2008

"The Other" - A Book Review by Bruce Barcott

I enjoyed a review by Bruce Barcott in today's New York Times Book Review of the "The Other," a new David Guterson ("Snow Falling on Cedars") novel. The review itself adroitly addresses the Big Questions that arise in one's life with the passage of time.

As Barcott describes it, "'The Other' is a novel about [John William, a friend lots of people know in college - 'brilliant, obsessive and kind of scary'] who goes off the rails and ends up living as a hermit in a remote forest in Washington State."

Barcott comments, "Trustafarians like John William usually grow out of their Prince Hal phase by their mid-20s, in plenty of time to make partner in Dad's firm by 35. Not John William. He drops out of college, buys a mobile home, parks it by a remote river on the Olympic Peninsula and spends his days reading Gnostic theology. When even that seems too decadent, he carves a cave out of limestone and retreats into the gloom."

Narrated in retrospect by John William's high school friend Neil Countryman, who, in contrast to John William, "builds a life. He gets married, buys a house, has kids," "'The Other' is a moving portrait of male friendship, the kind that forms on the cusp of adulthood and refuses to die, no matter how maddening the other guy turns out to be," Barcott concludes.

"It's also a finely observed rumination on the necessary imperfection of life - on how hypocrisy, compromise and acceptance creep into our lives and turn strident idealists into kind, loving, fully human adults. Wisdom isn't the embrace of everything we rejected at 19. It's the understanding that absolutes are for dictators and fools. 'I'm a hypocrite, of course,' Countryman says, reflecting on his own life and John William's doomed pursuit of purity. 'I live with that, but I live.'"

Some words to live by: Wisdom is the understanding that absolutes are for dictators and fools.