EAST OF THE MOUNTAINS By David Guterson Harcourt Brace 280 pp., $25
Following the phenomenal success of "Snow Falling on Cedars" (1994), David Guterson's second novel places the right-to-die issue in a stunning setting. The result, "East of the Mountains," is a disturbing novel, beautifully written.
Ben Givens, a retired heart surgeon, is diagnosed with cancer. His beloved wife of 50 years recently passed on. His discomfort, both mental and physical, is immediately introduced, described, and felt.
Convinced he will continue to suffer and become a burden to his daughter's family, Ben decides to avoid a painful descent by ending his life.
He packs his bags for one last hunting trip with his dogs and plans his suicide to look like an accident. He hopes to keep his illness a secret, but life intervenes.
When a rainy highway in the Washington mountains sails his car into a tree, he suffers from minor injuries to his face. Despite this brush with death, the doctor firms his resolve and continues the journey on foot. He loses his gun, and one of his dogs is killed during a terrifying encounter with a pack of coyote-hunting wolfhounds.
This voyage to end his life is periodically interrupted by strangers. The kindness of these fellow travelers carries Ben and his dogs from one rundown situation to the next. As he crosses the apple-country of his boyhood, memories of past years flood his mind.
Beautiful, poignant passages serve as a syrup to dull the relentless pain of Ben's present reality. But these distractions do not bring lasting relief and only intensify his feelings of loss.
Ben refuses to confront his illness, still determined to end his life. But through his interactions with drifters and strangers, his habitual care for those who are suffering helps Ben to face his own condition.
At the novel's end, he allows himself to be driven back across the mountains to his home to die in the comfort of the familiar.
There is no doubt of Guterson's skill as a writer and the timeliness of a novel grappling with a topic that holds national attention. But his novel provides no escape from constant descriptions of pain, hopelessness, and the end of human life. Guterson offers no spiritual perspective to these difficult challenges, and here the novel fails. Ben's lessons remain unlearned.
This journey of pain just ends, and we are the none better for it.
*Kendra Nordin is a freelance writer in Boston.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society