Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Other, David Guterson

Every once in awhile I'm relieved to read a book that I'm not madly in love with, just to be sure that I've not gone completely mushy in the brain and decided all writing is OMG, THE BEST BOOK EVER!

So I feel okay saying I just kind of liked Guterson's The Other. It's actually one of those books that I am appreciating more as I get farther away from it, realizing and "a-ha"'ing at the themes and the character developments that aren't necessarily subtle, but were lost on me as I tried to plow through the sometimes snoozer of a plot.

The Other the story of the narrator, Neil Countryman, and his life-long friendship with John William Barry. The two meet as runners in high school, competing against each other, and bond over their sense of adventure and love of the outdoors. When the time comes to pick a life's path, Countryman follows the more conventional, college, career, marriage and family path, while Barry veers off the beaten path, in an attempt to shed the trappings of materialism, as he has been obsessively reading about Gnosticism. He leaves college one day, walks into the woods, and lives, as the newspapers later describe, as a "hermit" for the remainder of his life.

Countryman periodically visits Barry, catching glimpses of the life Barry has created for himself in the wilderness, and the book essentially follows Countryman in his attempt to understand why his best friend has chosen this life for himself, and to support him and stay connected to him in whatever ways he can.

It is not until late in the the story that we begin to understand exactly why John William Barry is the way he is and why he has made this choice for himself. Somewhere around page 200, I started to find myself saying, "ahhhh, of course," and developing a big giant soft spot for John William. His life is a classic case of how our earliest experiences form our personalities and the way in which we are able to perceive and interact with the world around us.

In a very "Prayer for Owen Meany" kind of way, John William Barry touches the life of his best friend Neil, by setting an example of purity of purpose and dedication to his sense of self that goes above and beyond what one normally expects from a mere mortal. But John William's life goes beyond setting an example for Neil--in a very practical way, it allows Neil to fulfill his own life's sense of purpose and brings full circle the passion of two young men, joined in a race to the finish line.

While reading the book, I felt very "ho-hum"-ish, not loving it, not hating it. Just checking periodically to see how many more pages I had to read before I could go on to the next book. But after sitting back and thinking about it, I see that Guterson wove such an intricate tale of how we become who we become, who we influence, and how the choices we make for our own lives reverberate outside of ourselves like a stone on the water. Not a fabulous in-the-moment type of read for me, but an awesome sit-and-think-about-it-afterwards book.

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