In this philosophically provocative and psychologically astute novel, two boyhood friends take very different paths: The richer one renounces all earthly entanglements, while the poorer one becomes unexpectedly wealthy beyond imagination.
Once again, Guterson (Our Lady of the Forest, 2003, etc.) writes of the natural splendor of his native Pacific Northwest, though the ambiguity of isolating oneself in nature, rejecting family and society in the process, provides a tension that powers the narrative momentum to the final pages. There are parallels between this story and Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction book Into the Wild, as the novel relates the life and death of John William Barry, whose mother and father come from two of Seattle’s wealthiest families, but who forsakes his elite destiny to achieve posthumous notoriety as “the hermit of the Hoh.” What distinguishes Guterson’s novel is the narrative voice of Neil Countryman (perhaps an unfortunate surname), who has been Barry’s best and maybe only friend since the two competed at a track meet. On a hike into the wildness, Barry forces his blue-collar buddy to swear a blood oath never to reveal this secret spot to anyone. That oath is tested when Barry disappears from society and enlists his friend’s complicity in covering his tracks. The first one in his family to attend college, Countryman becomes an aspiring writer who supports himself as a high-school English teacher, and who marries and raises a family. Yet if Barry is ostensibly “the other” of the title, so is Countryman, whose bond with a friend who may have a severe (possibly hereditary) psychological disturbance seems stronger than the one he shares with anyone else. Ultimately, Barry rewards Countryman for the latter’s complicity in keeping a secret and helping the hermit sustain himself, but the greater reward for Countryman is the material that becomes this book.
When a novelist scores as popular a breakthrough as Guterson did with Snow Falling on Cedars, a long shadow is cast over subsequent efforts. Here, he succeeds in outdistancing that shadow.