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BOOK REVIEW

Wishing for falling snow

The Other; A Novel; David Guterson; Alfred A. Knopf: 256 pp., $24.95

June 02, 2008|Charles Solomon | Special to The Times

Inevitably, David Guterson's new novel, "The Other," will be compared to "Snow Falling on Cedars," his spare, evocative 1994 debut about vivid characters caught in the aftermath of racial injustice.

And, inevitably, those comparisons will take the form of "It's no 'Snow Falling on Cedars.' " Indeed, "The Other" is a flat-footed morass of trivia that suggests a bad rewrite of "Into the Wild."

During a high school track meet in 1972, Neil Countryman, the son of a carpenter, meets John William Barry, the scion of several prominent and wealthy Seattle families. Neil is an unmotivated half-miler who runs "on unfocused emotion." John William is "the brooder in the back row. The rich kid who hates and loves himself equally. The contrarian who hears his conscience calling in the same way schizophrenics hear voices, so that, for him, there's no not listening."

Despite those unprepossessing evaluations, the boys become fast friends, hiking, talking, smoking dope and getting into mischief.

After college, John William grows increasingly alienated, he spends more and more time alone in the woods. He digs a cave in a mountainside and gradually refuses to leave its isolation, even to buy supplies.

Neil treks in food, books, booze, dirty magazines and dope -- when what his friend obviously needs is professional help. Neil also keeps John William's whereabouts hidden.

When John William dies of unspecified causes (malnutrition? pneumonia? boredom? flagrant plot device?), Neil wraps the body in a cedar mat and hides it in the cave.

He says nothing about the death until rangers find the body 22 years later. Then Neil discovers John William has left him $440 million.

The money has apparently been sitting for two decades, as no one's bothered to have John William declared dead. Nor do the local law enforcement agencies care that the last person who saw John William Barry alive benefited very handsomely from his demise: "As it turned out, no prosecutor was angry with me for failing to report the death of a missing person or for interring my friend in a cave twenty-two years ago, so I was rich with no strings attached."

Although the novel hinges on that fortune, none of the characters seems very interested in it. Suddenly rolling in dough, Neil purchases . . . a hybrid car. He and his wife quit their jobs, but they stay in their funky old bungalow, while earning more than $60,000 a day in interest and dividends.

Their older son talks "about building a house powered by a solar-cell array, Seattle neighborhoods that are still affordable -- because he's adamant, so far, about not asking us for money -- and his fledgling interest in Buddhism."

When Neil visits John William's father at the posh Rainier Club, he recounts his son's unhappy childhood with the dreary exactitude of a high school student reciting the facts of the Battle of Yorktown.

John William's psychotic mother may have abused her son: There are no witnesses, as the Barrys apparently kept no servants, despite all their money.

And Barry pere doesn't seem to care that a substantial chunk of the family wealth has been handed off to an outsider.

In an unsuccessful attempt to disguise the sheer improbability of the story and the underdeveloped characters who wander through it, Guterson buries the reader in meaningless facts.

Every page is littered with the names of mountain ranges, mountains, waterways and trails; streets, cross streets and street addresses; song titles, musicians; book titles and authors.

Apparently this welter of names and details is supposed to take the place of credible character development, but the net result is every bit as entertaining as reading a street guide or a mail-order catalog.

Even Mark Sides, a lawyer who appears for only a few pages, receives a complete biography: "His undergraduate degree, from Berkeley in '68, was in the political economy of natural resources. He'd gone to law school at Stanford and had graduated in '71, Order of the Coif. Sides had clerked for a U.S. Court of Appeals judge in San Francisco and had lectured, in '03, at the University of Washington on the Model Toxics Control Act."

This resume goes on for a few hundred more words, followed by an equally detailed account of Sides' office, including the buildings in downtown Seattle.

By this point, the reader has been wading through bogs of useless information for so long that the irrelevance of Mark Sides' life and view don't really register.

It goes on like this until the end, when Neil visits a used-books store (on Admiral Way), and lists 11 volumes he's bought recently, any one of which -- including "Cocktail Shakers, Lava Lamps, and Tupperware" ($6.98) -- sounds more entertaining than the novel the reader's just finished.

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Charles Solomon is the author of many books, including "Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation" and "The Disney That Never Was."

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