At one point or another, everybody wants to get away from it all. But there are levels; one man's long walk on the beach is another man's faked-death journey into isolation and backwoods survival. There's a romance to the latter that comes hand-in-glove with its arrogance, a lure of simplification that implies freedom and a rejection of social responsibility. The journeys of individuals like Christopher McCandless (the real-life protagonist of Into The Wild) invite contempt and admiration in equal measure, but whether they're demonized or worshipped, the questions they raise remain. What would drive someone to leave everything behind for isolation, discomfort, and death? And just how broken does society have to become before such a choice seems like the only sane response?
In his new novel, The Other, David Guterson (Snow Falling On Cedars) attempts to address these issues through the story of two young men going in different directions. The narrator, a fiftysomething teacher named Neil Countryman, first meets John William Barry at a track meet when both are in their teens. While John William comes from rich stock and Neil goes to public school, the two form a fast friendship that has its resiliency tested over the years by John William's Gnosticism and obsessive intensity. Neil follows the well-traveled path of college and marriage, but John becomes increasingly unwilling to live in what he considers a corrupt world. When he takes the final steps toward exile, Neil has to decide how far he's willing to go to help a potentially delusional friend.
The Other unfolds at a leisurely pace, with Neil relating his past anecdote by anecdote, between interjections from the present. It's an engrossing, complex take on the decisions people make, and how often those decisions seem less a matter of choice than a matter of history. Guterson writes beautifully; his descriptions of life in the wilderness are squalid and haunting, and the empathy he has for his characters makes those descriptions as personal as they are poetic. Things get a little shaky in the final pages, with an overlong monologue and an ending that doesn't conclude the story so much as halt it, but these are minor complaints. The Other largely succeeds because it worries less about answers and more about the people who seek them, and how difficult it is for anyone to disappear completely.