The Other is one of those gifts from the universe I found whilst browsing my local thrift shop. Or, as I like to call it, The Goodwill Bookstore (because I live in a college town, there’s always a fabulous and surprising selection of $1 and $2 books). I recognized the author’s name because I read Snow Falling on Cedars and recalled how much I enjoyed it (although I tried to offer it to students once as a choice read and it bombed with them–perhaps they were too young to appreciate it). So, upon reading the flap and discovering The Other was inline with the themes of Into the Wild (i.e. rich kid goes into the woods to escape unhappy life) I thought I would pick it up and give it a try. I’m glad I did.
The narrator, Neil Countryman, a blue-collar kid, grew up to be an English teacher. He explains he’s writing this book about his friend, John William Barry, a blue blood of Seattle, who became a close friend after they raced each other in a track meet in high school. The book chronicles their friendship, their forays into the woods, and their eventual separation, as John William goes into the woods, and Neil goes into society with a wife, job, and responsibilities.
I found this book fascinating for a number of reasons. While it is fiction, it reminded me of Chris McCandless’s story as well as the story of a few people I grew up with who were fairly well off, who embraced the outdoors and nature as an escape from the ills of society (and of a sometimes nutty family). John William’s obsession with gnosticism was an odd touch, and did make me slightly interested in reading more about the gnostics. After all, he did write a 47-page term paper on them, which earned an F for not following directions. Additionally, while it is fiction, this book does a fine job of describing the dilemmas and perspectives of the English teacher–in terms of students, subjects, and grades. I particularly remember where Neil explains to the reader how he started teaching a particular text because it allowed him to think about / talk John William without talking about him directly.
This book was beautifully rendered, and heartbreaking near the end, when you learn what drove John William to the woods and why could not truly connect to women or to the world. I find myself wondering how closely this mirrors the story of McCandless. I have his sister’s book, The Wild Truth next on my reading list, and I’m curious to see if there are some parallels in the stories.
As usual, here are a few of my favorite passages from the book.
- Wherein John William reminds me of Bartleby:
“I don’t want to participate.”
- “Poetry & nature are occasions for introspection, but not necessarily for happiness”
- “When your mind has no reference points, it can’t bounce off anything, and then it stops knowing where its borders are.”
- “I thought if I was to be a writer I would need to travel in foreign places and take notes on how things looked, sounded, and smelled.”
- “While I am lying in bed, / Although surrounded by my friends and relatives, / The feeling of life being severed / Will be experienced by me alone.” a quote from the Buddhist Shantideva
- “It would be better if a teacher didn’t have so many papers to correct. It’s the papers that make teachers think twice.”