It's the kind of bad news/good news that someone normally tells you after you've had a big birthday. As you're adding those years, you can free yourself of some deeply ingrained habits, particularly when it comes to reading. Those of us who have had a big birthday or two tend to be compulsive readers—and we were schooled early that once you start a book you should finish it. The liberating formula: You don't have to feel guilty about giving up on a book so long as you've read X number of pages. You figure out what X is by subtracting your age from 100. So the older you get, the less time you have to devote to books that don't grab you right away.
This sounded good to me when I first heard it, but I find this rule hard to implement. My instinct remains to give a book a better shot than a diminishing number of pages. Still, I began thinking of invoking this formula when I started reading David Guterson's new novel "The Other." Guterson, best-known for his richly evocative bestseller "Snow Falling on Cedars," once again sets his story in the Pacific Northwest. Neil Countryman, the narrator, comes from a blue-collar family and becomes a schoolteacher; his closest friend, John William Barry, is Seattle royalty—born into a fabulously wealthy dysfunctional family. Brilliant but increasingly eccentric, John goes beyond drugs, quasi-mysticism and so much else that was fashionable in the 1970s to dropping out of society altogether, living as a hermit in a cave in the woods. His co-conspirator is Neil, who initially believes this is only a passing phase but then can't summon the will to try to save him by breaking his vow of silence about his "disappearance."
At first, I felt that the relationship between the two teenagers was too contrived, and the elegiac tone of Neil's recollections of their friendship somewhat forced. That's when I was ready to invoke the formula. But then something more than old habits kept me going, and eventually banished all thought of giving up on the book. That something was the fascination so many of us have with someone we've known who didn't just experiment with self-destructive behavior but who crossed the point of no return. This constitutes the appeal of a movie like Sean Penn's "Into the Wild," whose protagonist abandons everything and plunges into the Alaskan wilderness. As with Guterson's character John, we know where this will ultimately lead—and yet we keep watching or reading.
The reason, I believe, is that we all have known someone who pushed normal adolescent rebelliousness beyond the limits, or who as a young adult began a downward spiral that we—or others close to him or her—were unable or unwilling to break. And the memory of those who paid with their lives keeps coming back to haunt us. It's as if they acted upon what all of us in our young, more self-dramatizing days imagine doing at some desperate moment, but of course dismiss and then get on with our lives. John of "The Other" and others like him go their own ways.
The person I most often think about, even now, nearly four decades after his death, is Marshall Bloom. The editor of the Amherst College student newspaper when I arrived as a freshman in 1965, Marshall was the campus celebrity, a gifted journalist radiating energy and ideas, and reflecting the growing radicalism of the times. But when Marshall stopped me as I was leaving the Frost Library one afternoon, it was to congratulate me on a letter to the editor I had written defending the U.S. role in Vietnam. "You should write for the paper," he told me. He added that he was happy to see someone challenging what was rapidly developing into campus conventional wisdom. (My views about the war would shift dramatically a few months later, but that's another, more familiar story.) The point was that Marshall struck me then as warm-hearted and open, even if his political activism could be strident enough after his graduation to get him suspended from the London School of Economics for organizing protests there.
Our next encounter was about three years later, when I decided to write a profile of Marshall, now the editor of something suitably named the Liberation News Service. We debated politics and I pitched in as a bungling photographer on a story he was pursuing about a Marine who had refused to go to Vietnam. I then wrote a piece that he chided me for as sounding too much like the stories about him in the mainstream media. But he did so in a bemused, friendly way. Months later I ran into him by accident on the street in New York, where he asked me for some reason whether I still considered myself a Catholic. He seemed pleased by my positive response. Next I heard he had abandoned politics and was living on a commune in Massachusetts; shortly after that, he committed suicide. It was 1969; he had lived a mere 25 years. All of us who knew him were left wondering why.
Near the end of Guterson's novel, we get what sounds like the beginnings of a theory about John's frustration and rejection of the world—the story of his upbringing by a mother who refused him any coddling or even normal comforting. That feels too pat. The reality is that, except in the cases where there's a clear-cut medical diagnosis, those who either deliberately take their own lives--or push so far beyond the limits of ordinary life that they destroy themselves--rarely leave us with clear answers, which is why we find ourselves still thinking about them decades later.
All of us have at some point felt the pull of a dark undercurrent. And among the most gifted, this seems more commonplace than among ordinary mortals. In "A Sort of Life," Graham Greene's mesmerizing autobiography about his youth, the British writer confessed to playing Russian roulette—taking a revolver and putting one bullet in, spinning the six chambers, pointing the gun at his head and pulling the trigger, knowing that there was a one in six chance that he'd blow his brains out. He played that dangerous game several times before abandoning it.
At another point, Greene describes how when he walks on a lonely country road in total darkness, there's the phenomenon of the almost irresistible pull of the headlights of an oncoming car. He almost has to will himself not to step out in front of them. Luckily, Greene never allowed that pull to get the better of him, although his writings make it clear that he came closer than most people realized. Our fascination with someone like Guterson's John or anyone we knew personally who took the opposite course is linked to our implicit understanding that--given a different set of circumstances, a different arrangement of our lives--it's not such a huge leap of the imagination to envisage ourselves as "The Other."