In THE OTHER, David Guterson tells the story of two high school students who meet at a long-distance track meet in 1972. Neil Countryman is blue-collar Irish and has aspirations of being a famous writer. John William Barry is a non-typical “rich boy” and the product of two of Seattle’s most prominent families. The differences in their backgrounds, including the high school each attends, would make it nearly impossible for them to ever meet under normal circumstances. However, following their initial encounter, they strike up a conversation and at once are drawn to each other.
As they begin to talk and spend time together, Neil and John William learn that they share not only a love of literature but also an extreme affinity for the outdoors. As their friendship grows, they find themselves exploring the great Northwestern wilderness, which at times leads them into unchartered territory where they must survive on their wits and each other. Fear of getting lost seems to have no impact on John William and foreshadows events that will shape his future.
The novel jumps back and forth between present and past to create a puzzle of sorts that allows the reader to put together the clues that will dictate the choices both Neil and John William make. Neil graduates college, gets married, teaches high school English and embarks slowly on his writing career. John William’s life goes down a radically different path as he decides to move deep into the wilderness in an effort to avoid societal hypocrisies and tenets. Still, he remains connected to the outside world through Neil, who visits him often and supplies him with food, clothing and literature.
An only child, John William reflects on his damaged family, which includes a semi-psychotic mother who turns out to have been a poet writing under a male pen name. He has sought to insulate himself from the hypocrisy of the world and warns aspiring writer Neil: “The problem of living in the hamburger world is that you risk turning into an idiot. Didn’t you say you want to write books? You can’t do it with a cheeseburger in your hand.”
As they continue to lead divergent lives, the plot of the book shifts when John William proposes that Neil help him disappear completely. I found myself comparing Guterson’s tale to Joseph Conrad’s classic novel, THE SECRET SHARER, which also revolves around two close characters who seem to be two parts of the same soul. At times, Neil and John William are like two facets of the same personality. Neil understands that he has gone down the expected path that society and education have laid out for him, yet he still feels connected with John William’s plight.
THE OTHER is the best work that David Guterson has written since his 1994 bestseller, SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS. I question the release date only because it is not a traditional “beach book” or “summer read.” Nevertheless, those seeking an honest study of 1970s American youth that looks to answer the questions we ask ourselves about --- concerning our identities and what it means to exist --- will be spellbound by the journey that John William Barry and Neil Countryman take in this novel.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on January 14, 2011