Two men, two paths

 

The Other
David Guterson
256 pages,
hardcover: $24.95.
Random House, 2008.

David Guterson's newest novel, The Other, tells of the lasting friendship between two men. One chooses a life in the woods, while the other finds joy within city limits. Guterson, best known as the author of Snow Falling on Cedars, writes of the delicate balance between the romance of wild places and the security of family and home. 

John William Barry, a son of wealth and privilege, meets Neil Countryman, who comes from a blue-collar background, at a high school track event. The two friends make dangerous excursions up mountains and get lost in vast woodlands. "Climbing down vertical walls in a river was something you had to be young to try, a form of lunacy, and yet my friend's face was animated by happiness," is how Neil views one such adventure.

Neil gradually becomes a family man and an English teacher. John William retreats from the "cheeseburger world" after a breakup with his college girlfriend. Seeking peace, he burrows into a man-made cave deep within the Olympic rainforest. Neil is his only link to the outside world. "(John William) looked like a character from the Brothers Grimm -- the long hair and beard, the candle and book, the pool in the woods, the fire behind him and the cave overhead, the rising rock wall, and the dark trees." Neil worries about his friend, who is plagued by ringworm and infections, but remains loyal to him -- a pack mule tromping through the forest to deliver toilet paper and candy.

Guterson's John William is reminiscent of Chris McCandless, the real-life protagonist of Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, whose adventures led him to an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness, where he starved to death. But Guterson's novel also explores the road more traveled -- the life Neil chooses. Neil reflects, "I embrace the world -- the world my friend hated -- and suffer it consciously for its compensations, and fully expect to awake one day to the consequences of this bargain I've struck, since life, eventually, closes in."