Guterson offers a moving story of one man's final pilgrimage
"It doesn't matter who you are, how many awards you've won, how popular you are, or how much critical acclaim you've had," says David Guterson. "When it comes time to sit down and write the next book, you're deathly afraid that you're not up to the task. That was certainly the case with me after Snow Falling on Cedars."
For Guterson the "amazing success" of that 1994 first novel also raised the specter of the dreaded second book syndrome. "I was aware that there is an expectation that writers inevitably falter at this stage, that they fail to live up to the promise of their first successful book, that the next book never pleases the way the prior one did. It simply increased my sense of being challenged."
But David Guterson's many fans have nothing to worry about. His second novel, East of the Mountains, not only lives up to the promise of Snow Falling on Cedars, but it suggests just how expansive David Guterson's maturing talent may be.
East of the Mountains describes the final hunting trip of Ben Givens, a 73-year-old retired surgeon recently diagnosed with inoperable colon cancer. Givens sets out from Seattle to revisit the rural, apple-growing region of Washington State, where he grew up and met his wife of nearly 50 years, Rachel, who has recently died. His plan is to kill himself and make it appear to be a hunting accident. Crossing the mountains into eastern Washington, Givens wrecks his car, and from there his real journey begins.
"I feel that I've written a story that is in the most long-standing tradition of human storytelling," Guterson says. "The journey story is pervasive across the planet and across time. I owe a debt to every story that's ever been told in that tradition. Don Quixote is one that comes to mind in comparison to mine, in that they both involve journeys undertaken by older men. That is unusual, because generally the hero of a journey story is very young."
As Ben Givens's hunting trip goes awry, as he encounters people on and off the roads and in the villages of the Columbia Basin, and as he erratically makes his way toward his boyhood home, he reflects on his past and on his decision to die. Through a series of flashbacks, Guterson presents us with a fuller portrait of the man. "I see Ben's life as dividing into three parts," Guterson says. "The first part takes us up until he is fighting in Italy in World War II. That is an innocent life in which he takes great pleasure in hunting with his brother and father, among other things . . . After the war, he is done with hunting, and he is done with guns. He puts them out of his life and becomes a surgeon and a healer. Then his wife dies 19 months before the book opens, and he returns to the recreation of his youth. In this third part of his life he reverts to an earlier self. So part of what this book is about is the tension between these two selves. Part of Ben's journey is to come to a realization of who he really is."
That journey takes Givens through a varying landscape that is beautifully described. "I was born in Washington State and have lived here for 42 plus years," says Guterson. "I have traveled the entire state and spent a lot of time out of doors. So I have known the landscape of the Columbia Basin for quite a while, and I have had this strong feeling about it for many years." He adds that the semi-arid steppe desert of central Washington, where Givens wanders and has a dramatic encounter with a pack of coyote-hunting wolfhounds, proved "advantageous because there is a long tradition of desert sojourns, and the desert is a place for meditation, solitude, wandering. It's just such a happy coincidence that I happen to have this desert here to work with, the same sort of landscape that Moses wandered through."
"I've only recently come to realize," he says, "that I start just as powerfully with a sense of place and, ultimately, with a love of place, which seeks expression, which wants to use me to express itself. I felt that way about western Washington when I wrote Snow Falling on Cedars, and I felt that way about eastern Washington when I wrote East of the Mountains. It's almost as if I'm compelled to sing these places. I can't seem to stop them from becoming central. Even though I may not intend it when I set out to write the book, these places just emerge as major players in what I'm doing, almost as if they are insisting on it."
Guterson lavishes attention on getting the details of his places and events correct. For a scene in which Givens's injured hunting dog is cared for, he visited a number of veterinarians. For the flashbacks of Givens's experiences during World War II, Guterson acknowledges a host of books and experts he consulted. It's a process Guterson says he enjoys, and he jokes that it takes him so long to write a book because he gets sidetracked by the enticing byways of his research. "It's amazing to find out what sort of things people do. Everybody has a world, and that world is completely hidden until we begin to inquire. As soon as we do, that entire world opens to us and yields itself. And you see how full and complex it is."
Guterson's ambition seems to be to portray the full complexity of these worlds, and his ability to do so grows with each new work. One of the big surprises of East of the Mountains is that it is so stylistically different from Snow Falling on Cedars. Yet in its fashion it is at least as lyrical as its predecessor.
"The style is leaner. There's less density to the prose than there was in the last novel," Guterson says. "There's more understatement, and there's something a bit more clear from sentence to sentence. That's something I did intentionally. I felt it was consistent with the particular themes and subject matter of this book."
He adds, "At one level you're condemned to the voice you have. But within those confines, you have a certain amount of freedom to range among your possible voices. There's also the matter of the maturation of your style, which happens concurrently with your maturation as a human being. Because you grow and change as a person, ultimately and inexorably your prose style grows and changes throughout your writing life."
With the publication of East of the Mountains, David Guterson proves that he continues to grow in exceptional ways.
Alden Mudge is a reviewer in Oakland, California.