Novelist and short story writer David Guterson is best known for the PEN/Faulkner Award–winning Snow Falling on Cedars (1994), which was adapted into a 1999 movie starring Ethan Hawke and Sam Shepard. Recently reviewed: The Other ( Sept/Oct 2008).
The Story: In the early 1960s, philandering Seattle actuary Walter Cousins hires a charming young British au pair, Diane Burroughs, after his wife is hospitalized. Diane is soon pregnant with Walter's child and extorts hefty child-support payments from him even after she abandons the infant boy on a stranger's doorstep. The abandoned child, adopted by a liberal Jewish couple, Dan and Alice King, and unaware of his true origins, becomes the fabulously wealthy founder of a global technology company. In this modern retelling of Oedipus Rex, the fates of these three--depraved Walter, social-climbing Diane, and Ed King, who has an unfortunate predilection for older women--twist and intertwine tragically over the next fifty years.
Knopf. 320 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780307271068
"Ed King is dense with his customary needle-sharp prose; Guterson even drove me to my Bullfinch's to track the clever allusions to his sources. ... Those old stories [from Homer, Ovid, and Sophocles] survived millennia because they tell us about the human condition. Brave writers like Guterson can renew them to observe that some things are taboo for good reason; go ahead and break them, but there's no avoiding the consequences." Anne Saker
"Ed King is compulsively readable and witheringly funny. Guterson's narrative voice--by turns savage and sad, amused and outraged--becomes a kind of Greek chorus of one." Mary Ann Gwinn
San Francisco Chronicle
"Specific plot points may stretch credulity in Ed King, especially in the techno future Guterson conjures up by only slightly embellishing today's reality. But his portraits of humanity are real, and exceedingly enjoyable to read." Adam Lashinsky
"As a character, [Ed is] so narcissistic and unlikable that it's difficult to care what happens to him. The result is that Ed never seems like anything more than a plot device in a sophomoric attempt at social satire." Margaret Quamme
Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Guterson attempts to tell an epic tale, but an epic novel needs more than just a few decades to pass between plot points--it needs characters with complexity and a story that is compelling. Readers will be disappointed on both counts." Kim Schmidt
"Guterson's criticism of the corrosive effects of vanity, money and media mania, which animated his far more thoughtful novels Our Lady of the Forest and The Other, is in these pages relentless and obvious. He's knocking on the doors of Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen and Lionel Shriver, but he doesn't demonstrate the requisite wit or stylistic panache to pull off that kind of satire. The result is a mirthless story that's tedious where it should be suspenseful, bitter where it should feel cathartic." Ron Charles
Guterson's latest, an update of the classic Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, generated wildly divergent reviews from the critics. While the Seattle Times hailed Ed King as a "brilliant new novel," others were decidedly less enthralled, citing a patronizing narrative voice, far-fetched plot developments, and characters so contemptible that readers may not care what happens to them. Enthusiasts pointed to finely drawn characters--especially Diane--and Guterson's witheringly sardonic skewering of modern society and pop culture. So is Ed King entertaining and irreverently funny, or tedious and condescending? Devoted fans of Guterson's previous novels may agree with the Seattle Times, but other readers should dust off their copies of Snow Falling on Cedars to peruse Guterson at his best.
In his fourth novel, David Guterson, author of Snow Falling on Cedars (1994), returns to the haunting beauty of his native Washington State.
The Story: Neil Countryman, a high school English teacher and failed novelist living in Seattle, has inherited a massive fortune from childhood friend John William Barry, whose mummified remains were found in a remote limestone cave on the Olympic Peninsula. Neil met John William, the sole heir to a wealthy banking family, at a track meet in 1972, and the two bonded over drugs and petty crime until an impulsive trip into the Cascade Mountains changed John William forever. Looking back over their unlikely friendship, Neil struggles to understand what precipitated his friend’s bizarre decision to leave college and renounce civilization for life as a hermit in the unforgiving North Pacific wilderness.
Knopf. 272 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0307263150
NY Times Book Review
"The voice of Neil Countryman is that of a good, thoughtful man coming into middle-class, middle-aged fullness, and his recollections of life in Seattle have a wonderful richness and texture. … Guterson knows Seattle the way Updike knows small-town Pennsylvania, and there are moments in The Other that have a Rabbit at Rest quality, as tossed-off observations and bits of dialogue capture the essence of a place and a time." Bruce Barcott
"Neil Countryman is a rich, complicated Everyman, devoted to his friend in some way unfathomable even to himself. … And John William must go down as one of the saddest figures in contemporary literature—a bright young man swallowed by his own darkness." Mary Ann Gwinn
Christian Science Monitor
"It’s not the swiftest-moving of novels, but Guterson’s fans will enjoy the ethical examinations and smooth writing. … At the heart of the novel is the philosophical question of whether it’s better to have the courage of your convictions, no matter how high the cost, or to make the concessions necessary to get by in the modern world." Yvonne Zipp
"Like the two other novels that followed Cedars—1999’s East of the Mountains and Our Lady of the Forest in 2003—The Other is a journey through some dark aspects of humanity, though it shares an elegant—if more elegiac—tone with his freshman effort. … This is the sort of deep stuff where you need to don your intellectual waders; there are points toward the end of the novel where Guterson pulls us in almost over our heads to make the point." Edward P. Smith
"John William remains a cipher, and so, frankly, does the narrator, who describes his own happy family members but not enough to bring them to life. The most gripping section, by far, comes dangerously late—too late for readers who will find the bulk of the novel too still and ruminative." Ron Charles
"It’s well-crafted and tasteful to a fault, but there’s too much digression and not enough discretion here. Both Neil and John William are inert and remote, and the rich man/poor man ironies that Guterson tries to strike are freshman-comp stuff, about as thuddingly subtle as Neil’s surname." Kevin Allman
Los Angeles Times
"In an unsuccessful attempt to disguise the sheer improbability of the story and the underdeveloped characters who wander through it, Guterson buries the reader in meaningless facts. … Apparently this welter of names and details is supposed to take the place of credible character development, but the net result is every bit as entertaining as reading a street guide or a mail-order catalog." Charles Solomon
Critics had sharply divided reactions to The Other. Though most praised Guterson’s eloquent prose and lush descriptions of Washington State, the Oregonian considered the novel "dawdly and overwritten." Several critics bemoaned the inertia of the two friends, while others deemed the protagonists well-rounded and sympathetic. The critics fell primarily into two camps—those who were captivated by Guterson’s philosophical questions about individual conviction and identity and those who felt that his moral queries could not overcome a lagging plot and one-dimensional characters. Guterson’s heartrending portrayal of male friendship may not rise to the level of his critically acclaimed debut novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, or even Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, but it may still be a worthy exploration of the choices and compromises we make in a modern world.
Also by the Author
Snow Falling on Cedars (1994): PEN/Faulkner Award. David Guterson’s debut novel confronts racism and violence in post-WWII Puget Sound as a high school student goes to trial for the murder of a classmate.