True to its poetic title, Snow Falling on Cedars fell softly and deeply onto the literary landscape after it was published in 1994. David Guterson’s first novel, set on an island in Puget Sound, Wash., in the 1950s, got good reviews and eventually won several awards, including the 1995 PEN/Faulkner. But it was also a classic word-of-mouth sleeper, talked into paperback-best-seller heaven by hundreds of thousands of ardent readers.
Guterson’s new novel, East of the Mountains, is set in the orchard country of central Washington, but in essential matters it has a lot in common with its snowy predecessor. It has Guterson’s subtle, elegiac style, infused with atmospheric landscapes and high seriousness. It’s a story of precarious redemption, a man backing through defeat into grace. And it’s haunted by memory, both sweet and rueful. The period doing the haunting is the same one — World War II and the years just before it. Taken together, Guterson’s two Pacific Northwest novels, like Cormac McCarthy’s ”Border” trilogy about the Southwest during the 1930s and ’40s, reflect a deep nostalgia for the Depression and the war as the last austere and heroic time in American life, before the culture became plastic and ironic, consumerized and televised.
In fact, East of the Mountains, set in 1997 amid standard roadside clutter and blight, gives a better sense of our diminished present. But avid Guterson readers may feel that the enchantment gauge is down somewhat from Snow Falling on Cedars, which evoked a distinct world through its story of a Japanese-American man brought to trial on a murder charge, interspersed with memories of a clandestine interracial love affair and stark images of snow and sea. East of the Mountains is an episodic and brooding road (and off-the-road) novel, in which the episodes are usually compelling but have a cooked-up feel.
Most road novels have young heroes. This one has a 73-year-old retired Seattle heart surgeon named Ben Givens, who grew up on an apple farm near the Columbia River. He acutely misses his wife, Rachel, dead for 19 months, and now he’s been diagnosed with terminal colon cancer. Already in pain, he decides to commit suicide, planning to make it look like a hunting accident to spare the feelings of his daughter and grandchildren. With his two dogs and shotgun he drives east over the mountains in search of a canyon to disappear into. And everything goes wrong. If Guterson were a comic writer — which he definitely isn’t, particularly when he momentarily tries to be — this would be a comedy of errors about a man who wants to kick the bucket but keeps putting his foot into it.
Crossing a mountain pass, Ben skids off the wet road, wrecking his car and leaving himself with a breathtakingly ugly black eye. He gets a ride to a nearby town from a young couple, neo-hippie vagabonds who supply him with pumpkin seeds and Tibetan incense. Carless, he decides to hike to the desert to hunt birds and himself, but after a memorably nightmarish scene involving a coyote, a pack of hounds, and a mystery man on a dirt bike, he’s left gunless and nearly dogless as well. During his misadventures he meets a hitchhiker offering marijuana, itinerant Mexicans in need of a doctor, and a girl who imparts the cloudy wisdom of the German spiritualist Rudolf Steiner (who once figured in a novel by Saul Bellow).
Eventually Ben discovers that ”all guns are cursed,” and that by saving the lives of others he saves his own for an honorable end. There’s a lot in the book that’s unflinching, especially Ben’s ordeals on the Italian front during the war. But the prevailing note here, as in Snow Falling on Cedars, is tenderness; Guterson is a master, for instance, at depicting first love. The tenderness in this book occasionally crosses the border into sentimentality. Too many characters are too good to be true — the Mexicans are all humble and saintly, for instance, and Rachel seems remote in Ben’s devout memories of her. But Ben is deeply drawn and complexly sympathetic, and if his story, compared with Guterson’s first novel, occasionally seems forced and thin around the edges, it’s sustained by the same consistent intelligence and moral vision. B+