Components of sadness
DavidHerman and Madeleine Kingsley consider fiction of poignancy and erudition
PROBLEMS WITH PEOPLE
T(1994), a huge bestseller that sold nearly four million copies. Though Guterson is Jewish (“We’re just liberal, secular Americans with a little matzah on the side,” he told the JC in 2011), his writing isn’t. Snow Falling on Cedars must be the least Jewish book title ever. Set in the American north-west, where he grew up, it’s full of mountains and trees.
Problems with People is Guterson’s third book of stories. Right from the start, it could not be more American. His first story, the ironically titled Paradise, opens with a car driving along a highway, “public-radio chatter on fade”. The landscape is full of Walmart Supercenters, “trailers and blight, mini-marts and badly named burger joints.” It’s usually raining. If it’s not raining, it’s snowing.
His characters are suburban middleclass and either middle-aged or elderly. They work in commercial litigation, teach at college or are retired judges. Divorced or widowed, they go online in search of love and use Viagra.
One woman says of her first boyfriend: “He was okay. Not the star of anything. Just... average.” There’s a flatness about them, a deep sadness. Guterson’s stories are like Raymond Carver’s relocated to the north-west. Welcome to contemporary America.
Except for one story about a child- WENTY YEARS on, David Guterson i s still best known for his first novel, Snow F a l l i ng o n Cedars hood Jewish refugee returning to Berlin as a tourist, there are few Jews. Or Jewish images or rhythms of speech. Or even Jewish food. When David Gut- erson’s characters eat, they have “two scrambled eggs and toast with peanut butter.”
Who calls that dinner? The crackling, Yiddish-inflected prose of Bellow’s or Malamud’s agonised Jews seeking authenticity are a million miles away (even though Malamud wrote his best work just down the coast in Oregon). Europe and Israel barely exist.
And yet, Guterson’s clear, matter-offact prose, with its humdrum, everyday objects, packs a considerable emotional punch.
His stories are about sad, lonely people, recovering from divorce or bereavement. These are not people with ideas or backstories. It takes almost a dozen pages before we find out the name of the landlord in the tale called Tenant.
Typically, when Guterson wants to say that a character reads he doesn’t tell us what she reads, but what she wears when she reads. Guterson circles round his characters, filling his stories with countless neutral details, usually postponing or omitting the crucial one, until all you really know about them is how desperately sad and lonely they are.
Problems with People is an uneven collection. The three best stories are set in the north-west that Guterson knows so well. They are sad, poignant stories where nothing much seems to happen then, suddenly, right at the end, they change gear.
The reader pulls up short and realises that all the stuff about lens cleaners, washing machines and dog walkers was just setting us up for some big questions about life.
Who’s there for us when we die? How do we escape from loneliness? The best stories here are powerful and deeply moving. David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer
David Guterson: best stories are powerful and deeply moving