David Guterson, author of Snow Falling on Cedars and The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind
About every two years or so, I return to the film Snow Falling on Cedars and imbibe the beauty of this tale by David Guterson and of the movie it was made into. This January I found myself doing the same, the film suiting a post-Christmas more inward-looking mood perhaps. I put the film on when I was doing other things, even out of the room the tv is in; since I know it so well I know which pictures to conjure in my mind to match with the dialogue or music I hear. This time I was struck with what a decent person Ishmael, the young man who is the central character, turns out to be--how he goes out of his way to help his old friend, even though his heart is breaking, even though it means he will lose his dream of her forever. The way in which Ishmael changes in the story, coming to grips with his past at home and at war, is exactly what I am looking for in a story--a character that manages to scrabble his way to a better self.
I wondered if David Guterson has other such characters. I made a beeline to the library and took out his collection of short stories titled The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind.
The answer is Yes. With the exception of the first story, the collection strikes the same kind of gently quiet but always-moving tone of Snow Falling on Cedars. Guterson's poetic description is generously present--description that arrests you with the unique perceptions of his eye and choices and juxtapositions of his words. Never gratuitous, invasive, or interrupting, this quality of his writing makes the "country" a participating force of the story--matching, highlighting, or countering the mood of the moment.
The subjects are the different, and changing, cultures of family life in America, the passage of generations, growing up and not growing up, friendship, the apprehension of beauty, and the glorious otherness of nature.
My favorite stories were "American Elm" and "The Day of the Moonwalk." In "American Elm" we meet the kind of quiet kind young man that recalls the hero of Snow Falling on Cedars. "The Day of the Moonwalk," for me, was a near perfect construction for a short story, conveying so much in so few words that I was awe-struck.
Then I came across this passage in the last story, "The Flower Garden," that gave me pause:
He was a large, difficult and serious man who spoke to me often of the vagaries of baseball, wiping his face all around with a handkerchief and exuding a domestic, comfortable confidence. I often think of him now as one of a dying breed of men, who want, really, nothing for themselves, who have effaced their innermost desires without self-flagellation, and--in order to avoid the desperations of solitude--have given themselves over completely to their wives and to their children, and ultimately to their children's children, and done it with magnificent serenity.I am looking forward to reading more of Mr. Guterson's works.