By Rae Padilla Francoeur
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“Problems with People Stories” by David Guterson. Knopf, New York, 2014. 163 pages. $25.95.
David Guterson, most well known for “Snow Falling on Cedars” and winner of the PEN/Faulkner award, has produced a new book of short stories, “Problems with People.” From the stormy waters off Alaska to the foul terrain one man traverses in Nepal to an uncaring hospice, these graphically sketched territories serve as fascinating laboratories for Guterson’s equally detailed characters. What’s impressive is Guterson’s ability to land anywhere at any moment in time and capture the immediacy and the quirky human qualities of the interior struggles.
In “Photograph,” one of my favorite stories in this collection, the captain of the gillnetter Fearless sits down with the parents of his 19-year-old deckhand, Paul, and describes in detail the circumstances of Paul’s death at sea. Less than 11 pages long, the story is nonetheless a total immersion experience. In the space of a few sentences the reader encounters the parents’ strained marriage — fully developed and ongoing. They listen in as the captain relates his harrowing battles with steep seas. And they come to understand the genesis of Paul’s ill-advised obedience.
In all these stories, it’s as if we’ve opened the door to a drama of some small or large magnitude in progress, a door we can’t bring ourselves to close again.
In “Politics,” the petty and the perilous intertwine for an unnamed character who, during a strike in Nepal, must make his way on foot to the hospital where his ex-wife is recovering from serious injuries related to a car accident. The man intends to have his wife moved to a better hospital in Delhi but he first must trek more than five miles to get to her. He weaves through groups of threatening Maoists with weapons, mud and excrement. A young boy cleans his shoes but later relentlessly pesters him for money. In an interesting turn, Guterson moves deftly from the man’s point of view to that of a bellboy who, we learn, craves knowledge of a western traveler who doesn’t even want to finish a meal. Each male has his very different preoccupations and each feels true and telling.
In “Hush,” Lou Calhoun’s health is rapidly declining and he needs someone to walk his dog. Vivian Lee agrees, after some wrangling. These are tough, independent characters whose needs are basic. These needs dictate the course of their dealings and their interactions. Even Calhoun’s dog Bill has become a complication in Lou’s late-life survival. Vivian steps in to assist Bill after he is diagnosed with colon cancer. This decision takes her all the way to hospice, where Bill lands, alone, turned to a blank wall.
If you wonder what confusion feels like to someone suffering from dementia, read “Shadow.” Guterson starts with an airport terminal’s existing chaos, gives it a few extra stirs, and deposits a retired lawyer on his way to visit his son. The man has issues with competency due to some changes to his frontal lobe. He runs into trouble at the security gate, gets turned around in the terminal and eventually misses his plane. As he returns home, he imagines how he will interact with his son in the future.
“Maybe from now on he’d see him just in dreams, and hear his voice exclusively on the telephone, at long intervals — obscured, disembodied. Would he even know him if he saw him again? Would he recognize his son for who he was?”
Guterson writes about contemporary people we may know or suspect we’ve encountered at one time or another. We’ve wondered about them, tried to imagine what’s on their minds. Guterson has the key that lets us in.
Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF.
Book Notes: People and their problems
By Rae Padilla Francoeur