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Tom Chaney: No Escape from the Unhappiness Machine

Of Writers And Their Books: "No Escape from the Unhappiness Machine". The narrator watches his friend go mad and reflects upon his part in this physical decay because of having made a serious pact not to disclose his friend's whereabouts. This column first appeared 11 January 2009.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: New Year's Resolutions and the Myth of Eden

By Tom Chaney

"No Escape from the Unhappiness Machine"

In 1972 two boys meet at a track meet in Seattle getting ready to run the half mile -- "A race for unadulterated masochists. Ask any track coach. Neither a sprint nor a distance event, it has the worst qualities of both."

Neil Countryman, narrator of David Guterson's novel The Other [2008 Alfred A. Knopf], is the son of Seattle 'nail-bangers,' a term Countryman uses to characterize his working class background, and is on the Roosevelt public school team. Soon he is to be the first of his family to go to college. He runs against John William Barry, sole heir to banking and timber fortunes who runs for the posh Lakeside school and beats Neil in their first race by "three quarters of a stride."

John William Barry is a brilliant, troubled rich kid who hates phonies beginning with his own "weaseling, demonic forefathers." Neil Countryman escapes his past and family by becoming a teacher. John William becomes a hermit.

Together they have hiked the back country in Washington getting lost and high and discussing philosophy.

John William drops out of college, buys a house trailer and spends his days reading Gnostic theology on the banks of the remote Hoh River on the Olympic peninsula.

Countryman becomes a teacher of 'dead brits' to youthful minds.

After trying drugs and poetry, John William flees "the hamburger world" to live alone -- escaping the "prison for our souls" the world had become.

The trailer soon becomes too confining and John William chisels his own cave in the wilderness -- vanishing from ordinary life. Countryman becomes an accomplice to his vanishing in the wilderness; making treks in for supplies, helping him chisel the cave, and driving his car to southern California to abandon it, thus throwing his family off the track.

Unable to persuade John William to return -- or perhaps unwilling to do so -- Countryman continues to be a supply lifeline bringing food medicine, books into the wilderness of the Hoh.

For seven years John William lives on the Hoh retreating into madness and Gnosticism, finally dying alone to be found by Countryman who wraps his desiccated body, placing it in the cave to be found many years later.

So much for a summary of the plot.

This is the fourth novel by Guterson. Like his first, the popular Snow Falling on Cedars, The Other reflects Guterson's affection for and affinity with the landscape and weather of the Northwest.

Guterson observes through Neil that both poetry and nature "are occasions for introspection, but not necessarily for happiness."

Countryman as narrator has time and fictional distance to watch as John William goes slowly mad, and to reflect upon his part in his friend's physical decay. Early on Countryman had made a serious pact with John William not to disclose his whereabouts. While he is alarmed by his deterioration Countryman takes seriously John William's desire to persist in his isolation although he bemoans the fact that there is "no escape from the unhappiness machine."

After the body is discovered, the 29-year secret is revealed as is John William's will leaving hundreds of millions to his friend Countryman.

Countryman, in the end, seeks out John William's father at his club who, out of encroaching senility, absolves Neil of blame and bestows his blessing.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2014-01-12 03:04:36
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