|There are some books you read and pass on to others to enjoy. There are others you read and they become credit for the used bookstore and further purchases. And then, there are those rare few that you keep forever because they strike a chord with you. This is one of those books for me.
I originally bought this book because I have read everything else he has written. I haven’t always liked his books but they have a certain feel of silence and calm that I like. Guterson is also an author from the Pacific Northwest and my original reason for purchasing this book was for a book club in which I once participated.
It took me three years to pick this book back up because I associated it with…well, just a lot of negative things that were going on when I started to read it. Spiritual reasons made me pick it back up. The timing was right on.
The story is simple. Two guys meet in high school at a cross country track meet and become friends and hiking companions in the Olympic Mountains. After high school, Neil goes to college and takes the traditional path participating in what John William calls “Hamburger World” while John William wanders, eventually settling in a cave on the Hoh River and becomes an ascetic of sorts.
The story is also not simple. There is a deep unconditional love between these two friends. Neil worries for John William and is constantly hauling things up to his cave through difficult terrain and all weather. Each time he asks John William to come back down with him but each time John William declines. Neil learns things: about simplicity, spirituality, the natural world and our connection to it. Neil worries that John William is mad. He isn’t. This does not stop Neil questioning in ways overt and subtle and trying to understand John William. He goes so far as to help John William disappear. Neil comes from a blue collar family and has nothing but himself to give and he gives generously in this way to John William.
John William, while chiding Neil for his choices, does not try to stop him making those choices. He understands that Neil is also seeking but has stopped looking finding his joy in the everyday – college, marriage, children and the “Hamburger World.” He understands that some people are able to sink into their lives and settle without addressing “the big questions”. Through his asceticism, he knows that he will never stop looking and seeking answers to the big questions and that for him to understand, this is the only way. To fulfill his love for Neil, he gives him starter cash (an unasked for surprise) from his trust fund so that Neil may embark on his life. John William’s family is old money Seattle.
One day, Neil returns to John William’s camp to find him face down in his fire, dead. John William by this time has spent years up in his cave. Neil undertakes the ultimate task of unconditional love by preparing his friends body (crudely using nature’s tools) and placing him in his cave to continue his existence undisturbed. Many years later, John William’s body is found and in his (JW) last act of unconditional love and friendship for Neil, he leaves him a very wealthy man.
Each time Neil goes to the cave with supplies, he spends time with his friend. There are many conversations, the reading of poetry, discussions of Basho zen, work in the natural world and conversations. There are also silences filled simply. Sometimes each is absorbed in his own thoughts, sometimes they eat, sometimes they soak in a natural spa they created from a spring, sometimes they read and sometimes they just sit and watch the natural beauty and wonder of the area. It is in the stillness that a friendship transcends the mundane world and you can sit in silence with grace and have the whole universe speak between you in that silence. This is the rarest and most sought after of friendships.
Neil feels guilt for many reasons and the final chapter of the book is a meditation on how the first years of our lives shape us and in many ways shape the experiences we choose to have and the way we see the world. This is a subtle message that is actually woven through the entire book but is crystallized in the final chapter. The tears of man.
If the contemplative life does not move you, then you probably will not enjoy this book. Sometimes there is a lot of detail that on the surface seems redundant and may annoy the reader who prefers to “get on with the story”. If you want to sit in the stillness of friendship and unconditional love, then I recommend this book