Books: Slow gnawing on eaters

Nick Kimberley may not be able to tell a chukar from a carabiner, but he knows what makes a proper novel. And it isn't a directory of US apples
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The Independent Culture
East of the Mountains

by David Guterson

Bloomsbury, pounds 16.99, 279pp

DO YOU know what a ring-angle piton is, or a carabiner, or a chukar? When it comes to apples, can you tell a Stayman Winesap from a Rome Beauty? Perhaps you can, in which case the details that threaten to suffocate David Guterson's second novel might seem welcoming. It's true that, if the novelist can be said to have any "duties", one of them must be to show us things we do not know. That is why Guterson's debut, Snow Falling on Cedars, worked so well despite operating in that most superannuated of genres: the courtroom drama.

Here, though, I can't help feeling that Guterson succumbs to the fallacy that if you fill in enough details, provide enough names (apples, birds, plants), it will add up to the World. He gives a page of Acknowledgements to people and books who provided him with information (including the no doubt treasurable Apples Galore by one Al C Bright). Fiction and research are not incompatible, but too often he seems to want to fashion heartfelt from secondhand knowledge.

This is a shame, because his story needs neither documentary authentication nor the lumbering, quasi-archaic cadences to which Guterson habitually resorts. A 73-year-old doctor, Ben Givens, dying of cancer and unwilling to subject himself and his family to a slow, painful death, decides to kill himself. Aware that his suicide will cause anguish, he plans to disguise it as an accident while hunting chukar (a kind of partridge, apparently) in the countryside east of the mountains outside Seattle.

Needless to say, his plans go wrong; otherwise, this novel would be a short story. Although Guterson tells us very early that Givens "felt no longer part of the world. Everything reeked of the grave", memories swirl around him: of his wife who died two years earlier; of his time as a soldier in the Second World War, first in the icy hell of the Colorado mountains, then in Italy (half-a-dozen books about the war get mentioned in the Acknowledgements). While the past crowds in, the present too, demands attention and a series of mundane yet pregnant encounters serves to make the doctor more aware of his pain, more "part of the world".

If this makes it sound like something of an odyssey towards spiritual fulfillment, that may be part of Guterson's intention. There are moments when the portentousness is oppressive. Still, he writes from an abundant love of the physical world, of the landscape, above all of the people who give it meaning.

They matter more than ring-angle pitons, more even than Stayman Winesaps - which if they're anything like the American apples we get over here, probably don't taste of anything much at all. Despite its problems, is a great deal better than that. The truth is not always in the details.