Predominantly populated with unnamed, middle-age central characters, the stories in David Guterson’s second collection portray men and women who experience some sort of people problem. Whether it’s loneliness, anxiety, depression, or a combination thereof, these folks suffer a paradoxical fear of and desire for human contact and intimacy. Best known for his novel “Snow Falling on Cedars” (1994), Guterson has written four others, two nonfiction books, and a volume of poetry. His other collection of stories, the well-regarded “The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind’’ (1989), marked his debut as a fiction writer.
Some of the 10 tales collected here involve burdensome family members; others a new lover or the possibility of one; one has a racial theme. Painfully humorous, ironic, and satiric, each story is realistic, bordering on surrealistic; they’re well-written and well crafted, with one exception. That story aside, Guterson’s stinginess with names for his most important characters gets confusing and annoying in an otherwise first-rate collection.
In the first story, a trip to “Paradise” is anything but for a 50-something couple (she’s divorced and he’s a widower) who met on Match.com. In the awkwardness of their first weekend alone in Paradise, Wash., that ironically named area of Mt. Rainier National Park, the woman reveals her story of the loss of virginity and the death of her first love.
In “Pilanesberg,” near Johannesburg, Guterson strands a brother and sister in a game reserve. The sister, 33, suffers from cancer; her brother has come to visit. Upon trying to leave the park, they discover the guard at the gate claims he has no key. The woman’s bribes, promises, and threats are no use in getting him to open the gate.
“Politics” is this collection’s disappointment. The story follows a Lasik surgeon from Bellevue, Wash., who travels to visit his estranged journalist wife in a hospital in Patan, Nepal. A local transportation-worker strike leaves the man with a nearly 5-mile walk from his hotel to Patan, supplied only with a misleading Google map and a tourist guide.
After a meandering trip through a maze of mud, dung, garbage, and extreme poverty, he finally arrives at the hospital, where he tries to persuade his wife to allow him to transfer her to a better hospital in New Delhi, to care for her. Unfortunately and oddly enough, the story ends with an abrupt and problematic shift in viewpoint into the mind of a new character.
But what a gem is the humorous story of the morbidly shy reclusive landlord Shawn Ghemawat in “Tenant.” He has a name! Ghemawat rents out the Seattle condominium where he used to live to a woman named Lydia Williams. Too depressed and too slothful to even do his own laundry, Ghemawat tries to defeat his sense of worthlessness by being so bold as to meet and try to connect with Lydia over the “deep, abiding mystery” of the concealed water shut-off valve.
There are other good stories too: “Feedback,’’ a new one about a high school social studies teacher who teaches the ethics of Jim Crow laws, civil rights, and affirmative action, but is loath to deal ethically and empathetically with a photography teacher who was fired amid rumors of inappropriate behavior with a student; there’s another story, ‘‘Hot Springs,’’ about a middle-aged agnostic judge who still doesn’t understand his elderly Jewish parents, yet braves taking them on vacation to a hot spring in Canada.
Despite the failure of one promising story, this collection’s worth reading for its portraits of and occasional insights into personhood and its problems. I just wish Guterson would name his major characters; not everyone is a Ghemawat, a Prufrock, nor was meant to be, but neither is he an Everyman.
Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota,
can be reached at joe@joseph
peschel.com or through his blog josephpeschel.com/HaveWords.