By John Dolan
Snow Falling on Starbuck's
East of the Mountains is that kind of novel. It's a follow-up effort by David Guterson, who wrote Snow Falling on Cedars. It has the same humorless solemnity of Cedars--or at least it attempts to continue that tone. In fact, East of the Mountains is very funny, albeit unintentionally so. The plot is a classic: an old man, a tall proud successful Seattle heart surgeon who's got terminal colon cancer, decides to kill himself in a fake hunting accident. But on his way from Seattle to that final Happy Hunting Ground in eastern Washington, he crashes his car, meets a series of people--oh yes, people both good and bad, young and old, rich and poor, stupid and stupid--and then he helps deliver a baby, and it's a big moment for him because it like shows how life goes on, you know? And naturally he realizes that life is too precious to be surrendered so easily. We leave him, at the end of the novel, no longer thinking of suicide, instead committed to enduring nine months of agonizing pain that will end in certain death.
Now that's funny. But Guterson, who possesses that perfect earnestness one often finds in provincial literary folk, doesn't seem to have any sense of the sheer Ed Wood comedy of the trite and silly plot he's employing. Like most American workshop writers, he's read far too much Hemingway and learned to confuse flat, pompous monotony with toughmindedness. He writes in Hemingway's terse, hard style; but Hemingway could do that because he was, at least in his early career, a very strange mind whose telegraphic syntax seemed to be holding terror and chaos barely in check. When middle-of-the-road disciples like Guterson try to attain this tone, they always end up reproducing the comic earnestness of the late Hemingway--the tone of works like The Old Man and the Sea, bombastic self-praise that would've made Whitman himself blush. In fact, East of the Mountains is very like Old Man and the Sea in its plot, as well as its style. In both novels, an aged hero confronts his waning powers and finds triumph in overcoming them, etc.
Guterson's failed attempt at Hemingway-like hardness shows up in the first paragraph of East of the Mountains:
"On the night he had appointed his last among the living, Dr. Ben Givens did not dream, for his sleep was restless and visited by phantoms who guarded the portals to the world of dreams by speaking relentlessly of this world. They spoke of his wife--now dead--and of his daughter, of silent canyons where he had hunted birds, of august peaks he had once ascended, of apples newly plucked from trees, and of vineyards in the foothills of the Appenines. They spoke of rows of campanino apples near Monte della Torraccia; they spoke of cherry trees on river slopes and of pear blossoms in May sunlight. Now on the roof tiles and against his windows a vast Seattle rain fell ceaselessly, as if to remind him that memories are illusions; the din of its beating against the world was in perfect harmony with his insomnia. Dr. Givens shrugged off his past to devote himself to the rain's steady cadence, but no dreams, no deliverance, came to him. Instead he only adjusted his legs--his bladder felt distressingly full--and lay tormented by the fact that he was dying--dying of colon cancer."
They spoke of Spokane... huh? Oh, sorry--musta dozed off there for a moment. Where were we? Right, right: we were looking at the first paragraph of this potboiler. Whoo-boy, now there's a first paragraph for you! Remember those novels that Snoopy used to try to write? "It was a dark and stormy night... "
Somebody must've told poor Guterson that you have to grab the reader by the colon in your very first sentence. In that first clause, we learn that our hero is about to die. By the end of the first paragraph we learn that our hero is a doctor, a widower, with one daughter, and that he has hunted birds (all middlebrow heroes must participate in some form of blood sport, if only that they can renounce it at the moment of epiphany), that he climbs mountains and lives in Seattle, that he's been to Italy... in short, he's just the hippest dying elderly doctor who ever topped off for a pound of Kenyan Blend at the Starbuck's across from U Dub.
If only Guterson had any deftness, he might have passed all this expository background on to the reader a bit more slowly and smoothly. Instead he writes like a first-year English major, signposting like crazy, providing every single detail of the entire plot in the very beginning, no matter how this warps his sentences. Look at the last sentence of his paragraph; Guterson stops in the middle of the final sentence to update us on the state of his doctor-hero's bladder, then goes on to tell us the good doctor's dying... and then, just to be specific, adds, "--dying of colon cancer." It reminds me of one of Thurber's anecdotes about his college writing course, in which one farmboy-student, acting on his instructor's advice to grab the reader at the very start, began his next story with the sentence, "'Hell!' said the Duchess."
It's bad, but somehow it doesn't upset me the way other bad writing does. There's something almost endearing about this dreadfully earnest novel--it has the off-kilter tenderness of a truly bad primitive painting. You just know, after that first paragraph, that the good doctor is going to have a series of Scrooge-like epiphanic encounters which will teach him that he oughtn't to blow his head off with his heirloom shotgun. The characters he meets are pretty standard: a lovey-dovey young couple; a Hispanic farmworker who needs medical attention; a mean rancher; a lonely trucker... did I leave anybody out? Oh yeah: the Ghost of Christmas Past. No, wait--that's another epiphany entirely. My mistake. But to tell you the truth, I wouldn't've been at all surprised if Dr. Givens had run into Bob Cratchit or Ebenezer Scrooge out there on the sagebrush desert. The good doctor couldn't hardly stir without some cardboard character popping up to teach some moral lesson. In the Naked Gun version of this novel--and the novel is damn close to being a parody of itself already--in the Leslie Nielsen version, the doctor would flee back to Seattle and prepare to endure his long agony out of sheer frustration at not being able to find a quiet spot out there in the sagebrush to swallow that shotgun. He'd head back to the big city just for the sheer peace and quiet.
In the end, it was Cobain--the only real literary talent in all of King County--who put the barrel in his mouth and punctuated himself. Only the good die young. The bad--and Guterson is a comically bad writer--go on and on, squeezing foolish moral tales out of their obstructed bowels long after the cancer should have silenced them.