Instead of calling it “Problems With People,” David Guterson might have titled this volume of stories “People With Problems With People.” Each story recounts an awkward encounter, frequently complicated by one or all of the participants’ lack of warmth or social skill. I generally avoid fiction about “relationships” but found this small collection to be very satisfying.
I volunteer in the kindergartens at my neighborhood elementary school. One of the teachers tells her students to construct their stories from “small moments.” (Yes, the current standards have Washington kindergarteners learning to read and write way before some of us did.) A story can be about an incident that takes place over a very brief period of time and can be about an ordinary subject.
For kindergartners, such stories can include a visit to a grandparent’s house or a sleepover with a friend. For author Guterson, they include a couple in “Paradise” who have met on
Match.com and are awkwardly and tentatively getting to know each other on their way to spend the night at the lodge at Mount Rainier. In “Feedback,” a high school teacher snubs a former colleague and then obsesses about it, wondering what happened to the man after he lost his job because he purportedly had inappropriate contact with a student.
In “Photograph,” a fishing boat captain has the unenviable task of describing for a couple how their teenage son was swept to his death during a storm. One of the most affecting stories is “Hush,” in which an unlikely relationship develops between an ailing curmudgeon and the woman he hires to walk his dog.
Guterson’s stories are about believable characters in believable situations. Their awkwardness is not necessarily because they lack grace. Sometimes it’s the situation. The characters in most of the stories live in or have ties with the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps it is for this reason that they emerge as people we might actually meet in everyday life.
Another strength of these stories is the author’s use of spare but descriptive and evocative language. Guterson can create a picture — a sense of the relationship between two people — in a very economical style.
“Shadow,” perhaps my favorite of these stories, begins:
“He went in for tests that revealed changes in his frontal lobes. A battery of interviews yielded the conclusion that his short-term memory had declined. His ability to act serially was compromised, and he’d lost what a doctor called ‘executive function.’ All of this within three months of retiring – not what he’d had in mind.”
A former lawyer, the unnamed man lives in Seattle with his wife.
“Retirement wasn’t going very well. But then his youngest son called, after eight long months, saying, ‘Hey, it’s me. Remember me?’
“He panicked. He had no words. This son was so flaky, hard to fathom, unsteady. In his mid-twenties, he’d floated with a backpack. Then he became a war correspondent in Bosnia. They didn’t hear from him much after that, and when they did, he was far away. He married a Bosnian, then a Kenyan — possibly he was still married to both. If he had kids, they didn’t know about it.”
With very few words Guterson has drawn the relationship between the man and his son, who is briefly in Alabama before leaving for Cameroon. He is calling with an invitation to join him in visiting sites important to civil rights history. Against his wife’s opposition, the father accepts. Poignantly, the trip does not go as planned.
In this story, the author suggests what the future might hold for the man and subtly invites the reader to consider how a person in his situation might cope with the disappointments that come with it. In other stories, he leaves the significance for readers to determine.
Guterson is best known for “Snow Falling on Cedars,” which won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1995 and the American Booksellers Association Book of the Year. I can’t say that this small volume is worthy of such high honors, but it definitely deserves a read. Who knows? You might see yourself or someone you know reflected in one of the characters.