Soon everybody will be a potential client of Dr. Jack Kevorkian. The longer we live -- and the more we learn about the terrors of end-stage diseases -- the more likely it becomes that each of us will think of committing suicide. And novelists may be gentler than juries in judging the decision to end a life.
David Guterson signals his intentions early on in "East of the Mountains." Christian theology holds that at the second coming, Christ will arrive from the east, and Guterson is not a man to take his symbols lightly. While more and more novelists have been turning out glib metaphors, Guterson defied the trend in his bestselling "Snow Falling on Cedars" by using cedars the way writers have used them for centuries: as a symbol of strength and durability. The similarly mythic title "East of the Mountains" points to a second coming of hope if not of a messiah. And that is what Guterson delivers in this quietly atmospheric novel about a terminally ill doctor who undergoes a kind of rebirth amid the lush apple orchards of the Pacific Northwest.
Ben Givens, a retired Seattle heart surgeon, suffers from metastatic colon cancer and knows too well the indignities that await him, "the bedsores and bone fractures, the bacterial infection from the catheter, the fluid accumulating between his viscera that would have to be expunged through a drainage tube." He knows, too, that there is no heroism in enduring them "but only fear of pain's alternative, the cessation of everything." So he has resolved to end his life amid the remote canyons of the Columbia Basin, making it appear as though he died accidentally on a quail-hunting trip. But his plans quickly start going awry. He meets a drifter who introduces him to the palliative powers of marijuana, a young couple in love who remind him of him and his late wife, and a pack of wolfhounds that mauls one of his dogs so brutally he has to seek help for it. And all these experiences become part of an unexpected journey of self-discovery.
As Guterson tells this meditative and autumnal story, he shows once again that he has a naturalist's eye for botanical detail. But he is better at evoking plants and trees than at filling out his characters. He works hard to invest Givens' ultimate decision with inevitability, but he never quite pulls it off, because the emotional arc of his hero's life keeps disappearing into reverential descriptions of the landscape. Guterson writes so lovingly of apples that "East of the Mountains" might carry the American Pomological Society's seal of approval. And though there is no small art in conjuring up a memorable Winesap, this gift is a distinctly lesser one than the ability to create characters who will remain vibrant long after the day's headlines about suicide have faded.