Problems with People by David Guterson

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Reviewed by Victoria Best.

Ever since Snow Falling on Cedars came out, I’ve had David Guterson marked as an author I was curious to try. Great to know, then, that it’s only twenty years later I finally manage to read something by him. This short story collection is actually his tenth publication in a reasonably prolific output that includes five novels and a memoir. And it wasn’t what I expected. Don’t ask me why, but I had him down as a hard-hitting writer, who would have lots of violence and social comment in his work. Instead we have in these stories beautifully wrought portraits of lonely individuals who brave bewilderment and rejection in the hope of connecting intimately with a significant other.

The opening story sets the tone for much of what is to come. Two elderly people, one a widower and one a divorcee, have met on an internet matchmaking site and shared a couple of pleasant dates. Now they are driving together to a motel in Paradise near Mount Ranier to take their relationship to the next level. The narrative is streamed through the consciousness of the man, who is aware in both a pleased and intimidated way of the cool self-composure of the barely-known woman sitting beside him. When they reach their room, bad weather means they have no option but to stay inside, forced into intimacy of one kind or another whether they are ready for it or not. In the event, as a way of breaking the ice, the woman begins to tell a story of lost love from her adolescence: an intense first love with a young lad from a farming family whose romantic nature astonishes her, the key to the erotic being in so many cases the appearance of wholly unexpected tenderness. But tragedy ensues and the mere recounting of this old, sad, story leaves the woman sobbing. ‘She was crying hard enough to make him see approximately where he stood in her life. A trip to Paradise with a guy met on It had come to that. They were doing their best.’ And indeed they are, for the story suggests that the date is not necessarily derailed by this eruption of sentiment – indeed, braving the strangeness of another person is the only way that any worthwhile connection may be made.

The path to mutual understanding is by no means smooth, however. In another story, a lonely young man who rents out his old apartment tries to deal with his curiosity about the new tenant: ‘He wondered but made no move to find out about her, fearing that by asserting himself he might pave the way for a burdensome relationship, invite nuisance, regret his forwardness, ultimately end up with more trouble, work and concern than if he’d stayed in the background.’ In the end he finds a way into her life via a troublesome water valve, though this much-anticipated encounter refuses to coalesce into the start of a friendship. In ‘Feedback’ an academic working on civil rights and feminist issues takes some long overdue exercise in unclement January weather only to bump into a former colleague who has been ousted from his post. She is aware that some sort of scandal hovers in the background over this dismissal, involving inappropriate contact with a student. Awkward with unspoken gossip, she manages to botch the encounter and appear rude.

Travel often features, for the way it leaves humans at a disadvantage in unfamiliar surroundings and yet hopeful of something new. In ‘Politics’ a man has to walk five miles across Kathmandu because of a general workers’ strike to visit his estranged wife in hospital. En route he becomes entangled with a friendly, helpful, but ultimately too-persistent young boy who cleans his shoes for him with impressive care and attention. But then when the main protagonist (most of the main characters in these stories have no name) offers a generous tip, the boy seems to read more into his benevolence than a tourist’s gratitude. This is annoying because ‘He’d even imagined…how he might speak of it in glowing terms when he returned home, how he would describe it as a positive experience to his kids and associates, how he would refer to it with his nurse and receptionist. But not now, because what had seemed so positive had swiftly collapsed. It had gotten entangling, irritating difficult.’ This could be the motto that flies above the stories in this collection – how hard it is to keep human contact within safe limits, how tricky to make it satisfying, and how rare that it doesn’t breach a boundary or two or transform into something unexpected and unwelcome.

There’s some lovely dark humour too, as in ‘Hot Springs’ when a retired judge takes his elderly and infuriating parents on a trip and spends his time trying to protect his Gentile wife from his Jewish mother’s jibes. When the events of the evening take an unexpected upswing, he is astonished both by a capacity in his old parents for pleasure and in his wife’s tender attitude towards them. And the last story, about an irascible old man who makes a connection with his young female dog walker shortly before he dies is a little gem; poignant, genuine and uplifting.

Why did I wait so long to get to David Guterson? All these stories are written in simple, graceful prose, and full of gentle insight into the ordinary complexities of the human condition. A wonderful collection that’s completely engrossing and a real pleasure to consume.

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David Guterson, Problems with People (Bloomsbury, 2014) 9781408859971, hardback, 176 pages..

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