Monday, October 8, 2012

"A loyal citizen of the hamburger world"

I read David Guterson’s Snow Falling On Cedars with great interest several years ago. It  is a gripping  novel about the American internment of Japanese citizens on the West Coast during World War II. 

Guterson’s  The Other is  about an outsider who refuses to become “a loyal citizen of the hamburger world.” He succeeds  but at great cost to himself. 

The novel begins with the narrator Neil Countryman and John William Barry in an unintentional  foot race. Both are aspiring runners.  John William wins, but from then on they are participants in the race of living.   

Neil comes from an ordinary blue-collar family and John William from an extremely wealthy family. His  mother has mental problems and his  father is absorbed by his business ventures. Dysfunctional describes his upbringing in a home where  wealth oozes out on both sides of the family.

The two boys become “blood” brothers by choice – stabbing their palms and vowing brotherhood.

High school finds them still close in many ways but parting company in others.

“Be a hypocrite, entertain yourself, make money and then die,” he tells his friend. He can find no meaning in such a life.

Neil continues his schooling. John William becomes an avid self-taught student  of gnosticism but begins a gradual withdrawal  from what he sees as the hypocrisy of the modern hamburger world. 

Years later John William’s father remembers him saying, “The stuff they teach you at school is just so they can own you.”  He refuses to be owned so withdraws from society into his own world. 

In his effort to divest himself of modern cultural accretions John William drops out of college,  gets rid of his trailer home, car, income,  conveniences like radio and TV, and withdraws more and more ending up in a cave isolated from everything except himself. 

Neil, now an English instructor, out of the goodness of his heart, backpacks food, medicine, clothing, toilet paper, and poetry to John William’s cave home where he lives as a hermit for seven years. He is lonely but unable to connect. 

He becomes sick, diseased, unstable mentally and succumbs when Neil is unable to bring in fresh supplies. In brief,  Neil finds his dead body, rolls it  up in a cedar blanket John William wove and leaves it  in the cave to be found decades later by a park ranger.

 “A light he was to no one but himself,” Neil quotes to his wife from a Robert Frost poem when he hears the news of his friend’s death.  

As I read The Other, it brought to mind parallels with J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, a staple of the drop-out generation of the sixties.  

 Fifteen-year-old Holden Caulfield, a high school dropout in Manhattan, like John William,  is disillusioned with the phony world in which adults are crazy about cars, “They worry if they get a little scratch on them, and they’re always talking  about  how many miles they get to the gallon, and if they get a brand-new car already they start thinking about trading it in for one that’s even newer. I don’t even like old cars.”

The  youthful Holden shares John William’s view about education: “ It’s full of phonies, and all you do is study so that you can learn enough to be smart enough to be able to buy a goddam Cadillac some day, and you have to keep making believe you give a damn if the football team loses ....”  

He would like to drop out of this phony world – into the woods, into a cave, or whatever. 

His counselor encourages him to stick with school.  An academic education will give him an idea “what size mind you have. What it’ll fit and, maybe, what it won’t.” 

Fortunately, for Holden, he doesn’t end up in a cave, alone, emaciated, sick and out of his mind. He makes a small discovery about life. It has to do with his small sister Phoebe. He loves her.  He can’t leave her behind.  

He realizes that if kids want to reach for the gold ring on the merry-go-round, “you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it’s bad if you say anything to them.”

In Guterson’s novel John William refuses to grab for the gold ring. He refuses to risk loving.  His withdrawal from the society he despises is final.   

Years later Neil learns that his “blood brother”  left him his entire inheritance of millions of dollars. He made Neil a full-fledged citizen of the hamburger world.  Whether Neil will be bought or reach for the gold ring is up for grabs. 

Will this novel be the next Catcher in the Rye?  Both novels are intense indictments of the American “wasteland.” 

I don’t think The Other will have the popular  appeal of  Salinger’s Catcher because the language  is less accessible  to the ordinary reader. However, it challenges today’s hamburger world citizens to think through life-worthy values.  

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