David Guterson’s The Other is a very compelling tale about Neil Countryman and John William Barry, two best friends with completely different life paths that briefly intersect when they first meet at a high-school track meet and is sustained by their love of the outdoors. Guterson does a masterful job telling the stories of both men through Neil who recounts his own life and pieces together John William’s with the assistance of people such as his father, college girlfriend, and an attorney.
Neil is from a working-class family, and the first from it to go to college. He backpacked through Europe, where he met his future wife, and returned to be a high-school English 27 years and raise two boys. John William is “the privileged boy who would later become ‘the hermit of the Hoh’.” He was obsessed with Gnosticism and turned off by modern life of the ‘70s, so he dropped out of college and society, secluding himself in a cave in the forests of Washington and allowing his family to think he ran away to Mexico. Neil makes frequent visits and brings supplies for a time, but has his own life to live as well.
The story’s timeline is non-linear, so the reader learns early on that John William dies, leading to Neil becoming a local celebrity and an extremely wealthy man. Guterson creates mystery and suspense as the reader anticipates when and how the key events will play out.
As Neil, who wishes to be a published writer, is jealous of Raymond Carver while reading Will You Be Quiet, Please? Guterson induces the same effect. He has a many talents as a writer. His characters are complex and in just a few paragraphs the personalities and traits are quickly conveyed; yet he is still able to surprise with revelations explaining behaviors. His attention to detail creates vivid scenes easy to visualize from the expanse of Washington wilderness to small, intimate moments shared by couples.
Guterson also creates phrases and sentences that, while appropriate to the scene, rise above the novel and offer moments of contemplation. The Other has a lot to say about friendship. “You don’t so much change terms as observe terms changing” as the emotions range from camaraderie to guilt, and love which falls in between. There’s a line about “friends going out with a bang or a whimper” which is so true. We know when a fight or betrayal immediately severs a friendship; however, the majority slowly evaporate away like fog with no unawareness of the drift. The connection is gone before you know it if it was ever been there to begin with.
The only flaw with The Other is after the two key events are revealed, there’s three chapters of dénouement and the second to the last, “Periodic Irritable Crying,” where John William’s father Rand reveals traumatic moments of his early life is anticlimactic and the thorough detailing that was so engaging before bogs down the pacing. While the writing is still good, being so close to the end makes the reader anxious finish.
But that’s a minor complaint in contrast to all the wonderful moments The Other offers. I recommend the adventure it offers.