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Firefly Fiction

EAST OF THE MOUNTAINS;\o7 By David Guterson; (Harcourt Brace: 280 pp., $25)\f7

May 09, 1999|JONATHAN LEVI

As many as the fireflies a peasant has seen

(Resting on a hill that time of year when he

Who lights the world least hides his face from us

And at the hour when the fly gives way

To the mosquito) all down the valley's face,

Where perhaps he gathers grapes and tills the ground;

With flames that numerous was Hell's eighth fosse

Glittering. . . .

-- "The Inferno," Canto XXVI

****

In "The Inferno," language has the power to cast the veil of nature over the horrors before us. The countless fires of Hell, with one poetic squint, become a galaxy of glowworms. Up here in the fair world, however, when, as we rest in the shade, our noonday peace is shattered by, say, a swarm of bees racing overhead like a wedge of F-16s, we often discover that the veil of nature is blown aside by images of war.

In David Guterson's 1995 bestseller, "Snow Falling on Cedars," nature and war battled with one another, the snow and the fog and the sea doing their darndest to confuse the post-Pearl Harbor memories of the caucasian and Japanese citizens of Washington's San Piedro Island. In that novel, the struggle was waged on behalf of a whole community of fishermen and strawberry farmers. At the eye of the storm was the trial of a fisherman of Japanese descent accused of murdering a white man whose ancestors hailed back to Germany. There was death, there was love and there was even love of the stormy, forbidden, interracial kind.

In his latest novel, Guterson goes over the mountain to the banks of the Columbia River. Once again, the weather teams up with the ever-present flora and fauna of rural Washington state to do combat with distant recollections of World War II. Yet the rematch is hardly equal.

The chief--in fact the only--pugilist is Dr. Ben Givens, a 73-year-old retired heart surgeon suffering from the recent death of his wife Rachel and his own terminal colon cancer. On a dark October morning, Ben puts his house in order, his shotgun and hunting dogs in the back of his 1969 International Scout and sets off from Seattle for the mountains in the east. His aim is simple: to shoot quail in the afternoon and, at the end of the day, himself.

Ben is well past the middle of his life's journey, and his determination to spare his family the agony of the pain he knows is unavoidable is hardly as damnable as the sin of despair that troubled Dante. Yet Guterson takes his hero on a descent into the mountains as regulated as the Cantos that shaped his predecessor's hike into Hell. A car accident, a pack of coyote-hunting Russian hellhounds and Ben's memories of his Edenic courtship of Rachel in the apple orchards along the Columbia River all conspire to knock him off course. Yet Ben will not be diverted.

A grab bag of roadside Virgils guides him--a woman vet of the strong and handsome variety, a pair of ski bums who leave him with a bag of toasted pumpkin seeds and a Zen drifter who offers him a couple of joints and advice along the lines of "There's no wrong way--Whatever gets you there."

But it is Ben's dreams, his first dreams in weeks, aided by the medicinal effects of the drifter's marijuana, that act as his metaphysical beacon. Sleeping rough under the stars, Ben dreams of the war. Fifty years earlier, encouraged by Rachel, who was leaving the orchards for the ambulance corps, Ben signed up with the 10th Mountain Division, with visions of the pristine snows to protect him from any real battles. But like the one-armed Ishmael of "Snow Falling on Cedars," Ben found more in war than he'd believed existed in nature.

"You're hunting other birds," the Zen drifter tells Ben. And them birds, as Ishmael discovered before him, ain't neither quail nor great white Whale.

What Ben is hunting, thoracic surgeon that he is, as assiduously and for far longer than Shakespeare's Count Orsino, is the heart. "He believed in love, but first he was a scientist, a physician, and a man of reason. He had manipulated the hearts of human beings, and he thought he understood that when we speak of love, we speak of something transitory, something gone when we go. The heart, for Ben, was tangible--and nothing tangible remains."

And yet, as Ben dreams, he remembers the Lazarus miracle on a battlefield along the slopes of Monte Della Torraccia in the Italian Alps, when he watched in awe as a field surgeon opened a dead soldier's chest and squeezed his heart back to life. At that moment, Ben found his own pulse, his own passion. And it is the memory of that passion, ultimately, that squeezes Ben's own heart back to life.

Would that such passion were enough to pump an entire novel. And it might be, if Guterson were a dynamic nature writer or a natural war reporter. But although Guterson's writing is impregnated with research and begets detail after detail, it fails to give birth to poetry.

And for want of poetry and other animals, the entire weight of "East of the Mountains" rests on a single character who has just enough blood, perhaps, to physic a short story. Ben Givens is a pleasant enough guy, the kind of doctor you wouldn't mind having along with you on a camping trip for gutting perch or performing the odd emergency tracheotomy.

But after a while, you'd just as soon walk next to the orthodontist with the racy stories, or bring up the rear with nothing but the sounds of birds, or prop your transistor TV up on a stump and watch the movie about the trial of that Japanese guy over in San Piedro. Or better yet, rest like a peasant on the side of a hill and count the fireflies.

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