East of the Mountains
BY DAVID GUTERSON
Harcourt Brace & Company; 279 pages; $25
Certain novels are fictionally correct. They strive not to be great but to be good and, above all, to give offense to none. When the president goes on vacation to Martha’s Vineyard and asks for recommendations from local bookshop owners, these are the sort of novels he’s always presented with, neatly packed in organic-cotton tote bags. They’re quality-of-life books. Low-fat. All-natural. One senses that one could bug their authors’ homes and broadcast their dinner conversations live directly over National Public Radio.
East of the Mountains is such a novel, and David Guterson is such a writer. The follow-up to his word-of-mouth best-seller Snow Falling on Cedars, a literary mystery about the persecution of Japanese-Americans in World War II-era Washington State, Mountains is a more introverted work but no less civic-minded and benign. It teaches the interconnectedness of all things and the basic goodness of human nature. It warms the heart and stimulates – without unduly exciting – the mind. When it touches, ever so lightly, on politics, it always comes down on the right side of the issues, from guns to health care to the environment, and its mellow, nonsectarian spirituality is intellectually biodegradable, made of nothing more toxic than goodwill.
The story begins with a surefire stage trick, displaying a gun and setting a clock. Ben Givens is a retired Seattle heart surgeon, recently widowed and diagnosed with cancer. So as not to burden his family, he decides to set out on a final, sunset hunting trip, after which he plans to pull a Hemingway with his father’s shotgun. We’re told to expect the suicide that night, which licenses Guterson to describe Ben’s day in close and chronological detail. Every action becomes an epitaph, whether Ben is brewing a cup of tea or calling his trusty hunting dogs. There’s almost nothing that such a structure can’t find room for or squeeze some misty emotion from, and Guterson uses his lock on our attention to indulge a talent for lavish nature writing tinged with a feeling of ecological loss. The son of an eastern-Washington apple grower, Ben travels over the mountains to the plains noticing every hillock, every grass blade. “They emerged from the shadows of the talus buttes, where the river lay throttled behind Wanapum Dam, still and flat, a green lake.”
It’s an axiom of fictional correctness that people are never good or bad, just wounded, and the wound is almost always the same: a desensitized soul, an impairment of the empathy gland. Ben’s wounds go back to World War II, when, as an infantryman in Italy, he machine-gunned a German soldier and cut him in half. Like most of the traumas in the novel, this violent scene is twinned with one of healing when a valiant army doctor revives Ben’s buddy with an emergency heart massage. The incident spurs Ben to become a doctor and an all-around humanitarian. He marries an army nurse, his first true love; raises a family; builds a practice; and lives a happy, constructive life. Along the way, though, something hardens in him. Scientific rationalism takes over, slowly eclipsing the fullness of his being.
The business of Guterson’s story is to restore Ben, to open his closed lotus. The reader sees the healing coming when Ben’s car breaks down and two hippies pick him up in, of course, an old VW van. He gets another dose of counterculture when a drifter lays three joints on him. In a plug for the medicinal use of marijuana, Ben lights up and his pain disappears, replaced by a rush of childhood memories that allow Guterson to give his backstory. Ben consumes the joints one by one, occasioning helpful flashbacks at regular intervals, and somehow we know that his story will run out precisely when his stash does.
Guterson is a craftsman. Perhaps too much of one. His prose is straight from The Elements of Style, all active voice and concrete imagery, but its A-student composure is oddly distancing. Ben never seems like a man about to kill himself; his thoughts and perceptions are perfectly stacked and polished, like produce in a high-end deli. “The sun came low from out of the west to filter in between the limbs, and it lit her face, arms, and throat as she sat with her legs tucked under her, searching inside their picnic basket – tomato sandwiches, spearmint tea, celery stuffed with peanut butter, cherries in syrup, walnuts.” The book is full of such immaculate inventories, but instead of leading anywhere, they just pile up in handsome verbal pyramids.
Meanwhile, the ghost of Hemingway starts to moan – in the memories of wartime Italy, the Winchester shotgun, the beautiful army nurse. Ben’s bird hunt is a version of the fishing trip in “Big Two-Hearted River,” a story famous for what it doesn’t tell about Nick Adams’s presumed inner torment and troubled history. East of the Mountains tells us everything, though, and shows little faith in the power of implication. Fictional correctness permits no mystery. It has a job to do: Impart right thinking. Ben is tenderized in rigid stages, meeting a succession of passersby whose roles are to teach him a lesson and then move on. A sick migrant fruit-picker on a Greyhound bus reminds him of his Hippocratic oath (and the sad plight of the uninsured). A female grad student reading a book on mysticism stirs his latent religiosity (and inspires a decision to give up blood sports). Whenever Ben’s consciousness needs to be raised a notch, a volunteer appears with the perfect tool. By the end of his liberal reeducation, he’s sick of guns, sympathetic to the poor, environmentally aware, and he can even speak a dab of Spanish. Terminal colon cancer or not, it’s a wonderful life. As a farm wife tells Ben, referring to his family: “Seeing you die, it’ll make them compassionate.”
Or maybe angry and bitter. Who knows? The fictionally correct have all the answers, and that’s what’s wrong with them. They’re artistic technocrats. There’s no dilemma so knotty, no question so baffling, that it can’t be smoothly neutralized by dialing up the right attitude adjustment. Poor old Hemingway. If only he’d known.