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David Gutterson's New Novel of Conformity

One of my favorte essays is Mark Twain's "Corn Pone Opinions" in which he crticizes his fellow Americas for their corn pone opinions:  conformity to whatever people around say so they can keep their business. Twain attacks unthinking conformity to whatever is popular in fashion, table manners, politics etc.While Twain satirizes conformity, he's obviously asking Americans to think for oursevles.

I've been reading two new novels which both seems to be full of corn pone opinions. First, David Guterson, author of the the best-seller Snow Falling in Cedars, published the novel The Other in 2008. The novel deals with two teenagers who became best friends in Seattle:  working class Neil Countryman and wealthy John William Barry. The two become fast friends while climbing mountains around Seattle, testing themselves again and again. The best parts of this novel is the decription of two teenagers' hair raising escapades climbing and their love of the Northwest mountains.

Neil narrates the story. He goes to college, studies English, gets married young, buys a house, becomes a English teacher--the typical Average Man who has settled down. In contrast, John William drops out of college, goes to live in a trailer in the Olympia Park, carves out a limestone cave, and then goes to live alone in the cave for seven years where he dies--the hermit of the wilderness.  Thoreau was thought a hero and his many followers  who built cabins in deserts, mountains, forests have been our guides to the natural world; however,  the hermit living in the woods in this novel is portrayed as a nutcase.

Nonconformist John Williams goes around  in the 1970s muttering about "No escape from the machine. No escape from the machine" as if it were so much gibberish. He has stronge feelings about the environment which the author never details, leaving him a one-demensional crazy. Gutterson even gives a simplistic Freudian explanation of why John Williams is so crazy:  his mother was crazy and brutalized him as an infant. John Williams is described at Reed College as  "chaining himself to the radiator in the school presidents' office while brandishing a petition ... [and] standing under the branches of a plane tree in a campus, calling for the shutdown of the college, and distributing broadsides." Again, he's portrayed as a  lone fruitcake.

 What's odd is  that twenty years before poet Gary Snyder, also an environmentalist, was a total rebel at Reed College in the 1950s inspring a generation of envirnomental activists in the 1970s, but the environmental predecessors to Williams are missing and the larger environmental movement of the 1970s is missing. This novel just has the lone nut in the woods and his Average Man friends with the corn pone opinons who tells the story.

What's worse is when John William dies, he leaves his huge fortune to his old friend Neil who then inherits over $400 million dollars and becomes an instant celebrity. Gutterson mut have written the novel is the pre-recession days when inheriting $5 million is not enough. To have money in 2005 or 2006 or 2007 one needed much much more  in this rather silly Horatio Alger tale. As we all know,  many schoolteachers like Neil Countryman are now losing their houses or jobs in 2009. Oh well, it's no longer 2005 but 2009.  Where are those non-conformists now who predicted all this economic mess? Dismissed as nutcases.