The generally unassailable Socratic dictum that an unexamined life is not worth living is put to a severe test in David Guterson's melancholy, yet engaging new novel, The Other. Guterson, best known for his first book, the PEN/Faulkner winner Snow Falling on Cedars, here tells the disturbing story of a friendship that takes two young men down widely diverging, if ineluctably intertwined, paths. One will lead to death, the other regret.
The novel is narrated by Neil Countryman, a 50-year-old Seattle public school teacher who has inherited $440 million from the estate of John William Barry. John William, dubbed "the Hermit of the Hoh" by the media, disappeared close to 30 years before, taking up sequestered residence in a remote outpost on the Olympic Peninsula. The two first met as boys in the 1970s, at a track competition between Neil's public school and John William's exclusive private academy. Despite their different backgrounds, they immediately discover a shared affinity for hiking and, bolstered by a penchant for marijuana and adolescent philosophizing, they begin spending time together.
As aspiring intellectuals go, working-class Neil is fairly typical. He wants to be a writer and is inspired by the usual suspects - Hemingway, Kerouac, Carver. But even as a teenager, John William is a free thinker of another sort, eschewing the assigned topic for a high school English paper, for instance, and submitting instead a 47-page paper titled "Cosmology of the Gnostics: Penetrating God's Illusion." Heady stuff at any age, and the first clue that John Williams inhabits a different plane. Later, while at college, he fully - and sincerely - embraces the role of campus eccentric; then, abruptly dropping out of school, begins living in a trailer in the back wilderness. On a visit, Neil and his girlfriend find the trailer empty of possessions, and a message left behind asks them to drive John William's car to San Diego and abandon it near the border. John William has moved to a cave he has constructed even farther from civilization, and wants the world to believe he has disappeared into Mexico so he will be left alone. He has also left the young couple $70,000 to do with what they will.
Over the next few years, Neil continues to visit John William, hiking in with provisions, and watching as his increasingly derelict friend's survivalist skills fail to sustain him. Recognizing that he has played a major role in the deception, Neil wrestles with the proper course of action. Should he force John William to rejoin the world or honor his hermitic life choice? We have been told from the start that John William will die and leave his fortune to Neil, but only gradually do we learn the circumstances of that death or witness Neil's continued silence in the face of it.
Guterson is a writer of slow paces, doling out the drama of the story in non-chronological, sometimes miserly portions, while supplying generous servings of the more quotidian aspects of Neil's life. Neil is a cerebral narrator to be sure (at one point, after the story of the inheritance breaks, the Seattle Times aptly says he is "contemplative and answer[s] question slowly"). He struggles mightily with what he should or could have done to change John William's fate, and, by association, his own. This narrative, we come to realize, is his penance - an attempt at redemption by piecing together who his friend really was. Yet even when he makes certain discoveries about John William that seem to exonerate him, Neil nonetheless has trouble shedding his own sense of culpability.
Nominally, The Other is a book about the choices we make in how we live our lives, about the values we espouse versus those we embrace. Yet what Neil comes to discover about John William and his upbringing, tinged as it was with madness and neglect, in some ways dilutes this message. John William's extreme choices ultimately seem rooted in something less noble or spiritual than the dark places his deepest thoughts take him. In the end, the story could simply be read as one of family dysfunction taken beyond its limits. Whether or not this is Guterson's intention, The Other does leave the reader with much to ponder about the nature of personal responsibility, and the things we do or fail to do in the name of friendship.