The Heir Book Talk Assignment

In college, I had a friend named Kurt. A lot of people know someone like Kurt in college — brilliant, obsessive and kind of scary. He stayed up 72 hours reading Goethe. He filled a 50-page notebook with tiny scrawled notes about Henry James. (These weren’t class assignments.) He loved absolute principles and what he called “the timeless.” He railed against hypocrisy. He liked to stand outside fraternities and shout lines from Byron. When a poem offended him, he ate it — crumple, chew, swallow — and ended up with an intestinal blockage. My friends and I loved Kurt, and we worried about him.

“The Other” is a novel about a Kurt who goes off the rails and ends up living as a hermit in a remote forest in Washington State. The author is David Guterson, of “Snow Falling on Cedars” fame. The recluse is John William Barry, sole heir to a banking and timber fortune. John William, as his friends call him, is as old-school Seattle as it gets. His great-great-grandfather was a member of the Denny Party, whose members founded the city in 1851. In the Northwest, this is akin to Mayflower lineage. John William is a smart, troubled rich kid who loathes phonies and sellouts, beginning with his own “weaseling, demonic forefathers.” He’s the kind of guy who drops acid and chants, “No escape from the unhappiness machine.”

John William tries to escape the machine by taking the hermit’s path, holing up in the woods for seven long, cold, lonely years. In “The Other,” the hermit’s story is told in retrospect by his best friend, Neil Countryman, an English teacher who emerges as the book’s most interesting character. They’d make a good buddy movie, Countryman and the hermit. They meet at a high school track meet in 1972. John William runs for Lakeside, Seattle’s elite prep school (and Bill Gates’s alma mater). Countryman, the son of a carpenter, runs for Roosevelt, a working-class public school. Like many wealthy, virile boys in Seattle, John William tests himself by climbing in the Cascades, where he and Countryman forge a friendship through wilderness-survival adventures. They also smoke a lot of dope around a lot of campfires as John William blathers on about Gnosticism and teases Countryman about his dream of becoming a writer. “‘Lackey,’ he would say, about half sardonically. ‘Fame and money for prostituting your soul. Minister of Information for the master class.’”

Trustafarians like John William usually grow out of their Prince Hal phase by their mid-20s, in plenty of time to make partner in Dad’s firm by 35. Not John William. He drops out of college, buys a mobile home, parks it by a remote river on the Olympic Peninsula and spends his days reading Gnostic theology. When even that seems too decadent, he carves a cave out of limestone and retreats into the gloom.

While John William builds a cave, Neil Countryman builds a life. He gets married, buys a house, has kids. But he never abandons John William. Countryman treks through dense forest to bring his friend food and medicine. He and the hermit conspire to fake John William’s disappearance in Mexico, to give him some relief from his worried parents. After a while, Countryman realizes his old friend isn’t going to grow out of this Han-Shan-in-the-cave period. “So what, exactly, is the deal with you?” Countryman asks during an exasperated moment. John William’s answer: “I don’t want to participate.” But Countryman keeps pressing. “Idiot,” John William finally replies. “You’ve got your whole life in front of you, maybe 50 or 60 years. And what are you going to do with that? Be a hypocrite, entertain yourself, make money and then die?”

Well, yes. “The Other” is a moving portrait of male friendship, the kind that forms on the cusp of adulthood and refuses to die, no matter how maddening the other guy turns out to be. It’s also a finely observed rumination on the necessary imperfection of life — on how hypocrisy, compromise and acceptance creep into our lives and turn strident idealists into kind, loving, fully human adults. Wisdom isn’t the embrace of everything we rejected at 19. It’s the understanding that absolutes are for dictators and fools. “I’m a hypocrite, of course,” Countryman says, reflecting on his own life and John William’s doomed pursuit of purity. “I live with that, but I live.”

David Guterson broke out of the box nearly 15 years ago with his wildly successful debut novel. Neither of his subsequent novels, “East of the Mountains” and “Our Lady of the Forest,” has matched that first book’s sales, but here’s the admirable thing: His books keep getting better.There’s a deus ex machina at the end of this new one that, a little disappointingly, plants guilt for John William’s struggles at the feet of a certain suspect. But the voice of Neil Countryman is that of a good, thoughtful man coming into middle-class, middle-aged fullness, and his recollections of life in Seattle have a wonderful richness and texture.

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A bizarre chain of events begins when sixteen unlikely people gather for the reading of Samuel W. Westing's will. And though no one knows why the eccentric, game-loving millionaire has chosen a virtual stranger - and a possible murderer - to inherit his vast fortune, one thing's for sure: Sam Westing may be dead... but that won't stop him from playing one last game!

Paperback, Penguin, 182 pages

Published April 12th 2004 by Puffin (first published 1978)

More Details...

Original Title

The Westing Game

ISBN

014240120X (ISBN13: 9780142401200)

Characters

Samuel W. Westing, Turtle Wexler, Flora Baumbach, Christos Theodorakis, Denton Deere...more, J.J. Ford, Alexander McSouthers, Grace Wexler, James Hoo, Berthe Erica Crowe, Otis Amber, Douglas Hoo, Theo Theodorakis, Sydelle Pulaski, Angela Wexler, Sandy Hoo, Jake Wexler...less

setting

Westingtown (United States)
Milwaukee, Wisconsin (United States)


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