From snow to sons and others

Why do they hate us?... David Guterson.

Ben Naparstek
June 28, 2008

WHEN David Guterson was a child, his disturbed mother, Shirley, warned him that people aren't who they appear. "She'd say things like, 'The mechanic at the gas station working on the car - it's not really him, he's wearing a mask,"' he says. Shirley was herself a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality who could prepare dinner one night and be hospitalised the next.

Her paranoia about the identities people assume contained some truth, however. In his new novel, The Other, Guterson considers how people are shaped by their repressed other selves. "We're all inhabited by shadow figures," he says, "other permutations of ourself that are unconscious and yet impact our lives." The epigraph quotes French poet Arthur Rimbaud: "I am an other."

The Other tells of two friends, seemingly opposites, who bond as teenagers through their passion for the outdoors. The narrator, Neil Countryman, is a public high school student of working-class stock who follows the path of Guterson's life - graduating from college, marrying young and becoming a high school English teacher.

Neil's friend, John William, is a brooding heir to wealth, so outraged at society that he drops out of college and disappears into the wilderness to live hermetically in a cave. Only Neil knows John's whereabouts and he brings his friend supplies and nurses their secret, even as the hermit deteriorates.

The Other is Guterson's most autobiographical novel, drawing on his experiences trekking through the mountains near Seattle as an adolescent in the early '70s, which he recalls as a time of cultural limbo. "We were the generation that was after the zeal of the '60s and slightly early for disco," says the 52-year-old novelist by phone.

North America's Pacific north-west was also the setting of his debut novel Snow Falling On Cedars (1994), about the murder trial of a Japanese-American fisherman in 1954 when anti-Japanese sentiments remained prevalent. Winning the prestigious PEN-Faulkner Award for Fiction in 1995, Cedars sold nearly 5 million copies and became a film by Australian director Scott Hicks in 1999.

Guterson's subsequent novels, East Of The Mountains (1999) and Our Lady Of The Forest (2003), returned to his native landscape but earned less critical acclaim. East Of The Mountains charts the spiritual journey of a retired surgeon diagnosed with terminal cancer; Our Lady Of The Forest is a dark fairytale about a teenage runaway who claims to see the Virgin Mary.

In The Other, Guterson asks whether it is possible - or desirable - to lead a life of uncompromising principle. "Neil projects his own alienation onto somebody else so he doesn't have to carry it in his conscious life," Guterson says. "John is projecting his own will towards conventionality onto Neil."

The novel is narrated in flashback decades after John's demise, as Neil considers how his friend developed the hatred of civilisation that drove him to choose death over life in what he termed "the hamburger world". "I started with the question floating around after 9/11 - 'why do they hate us?"' Guterson says. "This book is a look at somebody who has a devastating critique of Western society."

Neil wonders about the role of John's parents in fostering his rage - particularly his mentally ill mother, Virginia, whose idea of disciplining her infant son was to ignore his cries. Guterson admits that Virginia's condition is similar to Shirley's undiagnosed illness, which lasted for 10 years and disappeared once her children grew up. He suggests his mother's condition was probably a reaction to the pressures of child-rearing.

Guterson's father, Murray, remains, at 78, a noted criminal defence lawyer but he was largely absent in Guterson's childhood. Murray was the model for Nels Gudmundsson, the defence lawyer of Cedars, and Guterson says his father and Nels share the "distance from which they view events and the sadness with which they view human nature". John's workaholic father, Rand, wonders guiltily whether he contributed to his son's fate by being passive about his wife's neglect.

As a child, Guterson accepted that his father needed to work long hours; such were the norms of the day. But it felt odd that his mother, a perennial student who never worked, was rarely home: "You were more likely as a kid then to be mad at your mum, and say, 'Hey all the other mums are making breakfast. What are you doing?' She'd say: 'Well, I'm off. Make your own breakfast."'

Fortunately, Guterson wasn't an only child like John, and he and his four siblings took care of each other: "We got up in the morning and worked together to get breakfast."

Guterson remembers visiting Shirley in hospital when she was heavily medicated: "They make them do things like draw pictures or make little clay figurines or play shuffleboard and it's like your mum's in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. You'd come out of the hospital and think, 'God, I wish I'd never visited. I don't want to see this."'

Guterson seems to have attained the stability he lacked as a child by sticking to the conventional. He has spent nearly all of his life close to his Seattle birthplace, only once moving interstate for a masters in creative writing at Brown University, Rhode Island.

He quit after two months, finding the program overly experimental and frustrated by the seminar environment. "It was one of those writing programs where you sit at a seminar table with 10 other people and you go over peoples' manuscripts, and they all yell and get mad at each other," he says.

Guterson lives on 10.9-hectare property on an island in Puget Sound, near Seattle, and says what he likes most about the nearby mountain terrain is its familiarity. "It's great to really know some place well and know what you're looking at in all directions." He cannot imagine returning to the city since "you spend all your time on logistics; everything is too much trouble".

His four children - now 15, 23, 24 and 27 - could never say they were abandoned: Guterson's wife, Robin, his high-school flame, home-schooled them until their teenage years. Last year, the couple adopted a girl, Yerusalem, 7, from Ethiopia.

Guterson made the case for home-schooling in Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense (1992) and doesn't think parents' emotional involvement with their children precludes them from being effective teachers. Nor does he believe it's important for children to socialise every day with their peers: "In many institutionalised educational settings, there's a kind of neurotic social engagement that's competitive and clique-ish. It's not normal to take a whole lot of people of their own age and force them to be together all day."

His friend the novelist Charles Johnson remembers him talking fondly about the values he acquired during his years as a Boy Scout, when he rose to the rank of Eagle. "He's always been solid as a rock," says Johnson, who taught Guterson at the University of Washington, where he earned a graduate degree in creative writing after leaving Brown. "He has none of the childish and irresponsible traits that we in the West often associate with creative people - drunkenness, sexual promiscuity or drug use."

Guterson acknowledges that he remains a scout in spirit: "If there's an old lady who needs help to cross the street, I'm not embarrassed to help her. I don't think it's corny." But he still has peccadilloes. For years, he shot birds and ate them. "I did it without giving it a lot of thought," he says, "but at a certain point I started thinking, 'I just don't want to knock another bird down."'

His good deeds are many. As an undergraduate at the University of Washington, he volunteered as a firefighter during his summer holidays, and the smoke gave his voice its permanently raspy quality. With the windfall from Cedars, he co-founded a local writers' centre, Field's End, and endowed a scholarship for creative writing students.

Guterson wrote Cedars over eight years while working as a teacher and struggling to raise four children in a dilapidated shack on an annual income of less than $US30,000. After the book became a best-seller, he built a comfortable home and became a full-time writer. But he continued to live modestly - with no holiday houses, lavish cars, boats or expensive travel - and mentions the teachings of Buddha as an important influence.

Raised Jewish and now an agnostic, he finds himself increasingly preoccupied with spiritual questions. "Just by virtue of getting older I think everybody becomes more spiritual. Coming to grips with the absolute undeniable reality of your death forces you to start asking yourself, 'What am I going to do right now that matters? Is there anything that matters?"' He adds: "The general trend over time in my life with regard to these questions is towards a much greater calmness about them."

He also appears calm about his childhood, despite what The Other suggests, and refuses to pass judgment on his mother. "Nowadays I think people would say it shouldn't be just her responsibility to make breakfast," he says. "I mean, she had every bit as much right to go out and [study] as my dad had to do what he did."

They are the forgiving words of a polite and loyal Eagle Scout but perhaps mask an angry child underneath.

The Other is published by Bloomsbury, $32.95.