By David Guterson
Knopf. 256 pp. $24.95
Reviewed by Susan Balée
Wilderness. The dark woods. Places where travelers get lost and some go to lose themselves.
In North America, the indigenous peoples were never lost in the landscape, but European settlers routinely were.
William Bradford speaks fearfully of the wilderness in his diaries about the Plymouth Plantation; Nathaniel Hawthorne makes the woods the place where one can meet the devil or step outside the moral bounds of society; Henry David Thoreau celebrates the woods around Walden Pond (by his time they'd been tamed); and, in our day, David Guterson regularly sets his stories in the largely uncharted forests of the Pacific Northwest.
In his latest offering,
, Guterson focuses on a character who thrives in the hermetic solitude of the woods. If you've heard of Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber, you will recognize this species of survivalist. But what shapes a personality like this? Clearly that's what Guterson wondered when he began
, and readers will be absorbed as his narrator, Neil Countryman, tries to pierce the darkness surrounding a tormented friend who became The Hermit of the Hoh.
As Guterson showed in his breakout novel,
Snow Falling on Cedars
, he knows something about both moral choices and the self-destructive loneliness of teenage boys. They take chances. They flirt with death. In the case of Neil Countryman and his friend John William Barry, they get lost in the woods.
This would be in the Cascade Mountains, the primitive part that stretches - all 8.5 million contiguous, roadless acres - across and between Washington state and Canada. This is 1973, and when first the reefer and then the food runs out, being lost begins to look like a route to madness: "When your mind has no reference points, it can't bounce off anything, and then it stops knowing where its borders are. That's when you start bending your map to make it fit inside your head, or smash your compass with a rock because it's lying to you. So there we were in our claustrophobic wood, needles in our hair, sweaty and rank, hunkered in the gloom, bug-addled, parched, trying to fix our position by sun bearings where there was no sun . . . in short, orienteering in a void of sheer relativism: a little like the math question asking,
What is x?
when nothing is known."
Hunger makes them primitive. They catch a bird, then a squirrel, and devour the entrails as well as the meat. When they encounter a black bear, they are not afraid but yearn to eat it - only they don't know how to kill it. At last they make it out of the woods, but "after a journey like ours, people in the 'real' world seemed misguided and innocent of reality. . . . There was a residue of this lonely and acute perception of the organized social world as a pathetic illusion. . . ." But Neil Countryman eats himself "once more, into arrogance," and forgets the lessons of his near-death experience.
John William Barry does not, and when the boys are 19, he chooses to leave Reed College and his wealthy family behind and live beside the Hoh River in a cave - which he pickaxes out of a limestone wall - deep in the trackless woods. Countryman opts to keep his secret and to support him as much as possible.
Barry spends his life feeling like an alien, an other, but the subtext of the novel is that he is also Countryman's "other self." Countryman grows up, takes a backpacking trip through Europe, marries and has kids, buys a house, becomes an English teacher, and generally lives the life of a good citizen and member of society. Yet, readers know he has this other self in the woods, this person everyone assumes is dead, that he hikes in to see, play chess with, and supply with white gas and toilet paper.
I really loved the first two-thirds of the novel, which is about the moral choices we make, and whether we live honestly and rawly or lie to ourselves in order to survive in society. The last third of the book appealed less to me - it's the section where Guterson feels he must account for Barry's bizarre behavior. This turns into a study of parenting, particularly mothering, with added digressions relating to mental illness (Asperger's, anyone?), drug use, and despised personal wealth (earned by hard-dealing robber-baron ancestors).
The book seems not to need this psychoanalytic section, but perhaps some readers will find it edifying. It does explain the survivalists among us, the Ted Kaczynskis who become hermits in the woods because their demons won't let them live in society.
is an excellent novel, as humane as it is compelling.