Book review: In “Problems With People,” Guterson’s archetypes come uncomfortably close to stereotypes.
David Guterson’s best-known novel, “Snow Falling on Cedars,” was a clear and still piece of conjured life, as touched with time and bittersweet beauty as its Pacific Northwest setting. He dared to try to look through the eyes of people from cultures and genders that were not his own, and did so with grace and humility. It’s odd then, and almost painful to read “Problems With People,” in which the author often seems to dislike his characters intensely.
It’s not that he’s not skilled; his most enjoyable tales are stealthy, Chekov-like takes on a certain recognizable type; a person cresting the hill of middle age, progressive, educated, affluent enough to eat for “wellness” and to travel from time to time. These characters are educators, administrators, judges: people whose good intentions never seem to lead to good action. In “Feedback,” a teacher, ruminating while her pesto boils, reminds herself of her formula for avoiding discomfort: “It was so simple. Never do anything that will make you feel bad later.”
But she has — she’s snubbed a former colleague who left under a cloud of suspicion, a cloud which may have been less damaging than his lack of glamour. She means well; her daughters are both working in “developing countries, though she doesn’t like the word,” she tries to care about politics and justice when she’s not too overwhelmed. But she’s the kind of liberal Flannery O’Connor used to illustrate the soul’s blindness; she’s unkind, quick to judge, all too willing to make jokes at her former colleague’s expense. Guterson’s ear for the evasion and subtle mockery supposedly decent people engage in is all too accurate. He can make one-word e-mail replies ring with snobbery and judgment. It’s clear, in this story and others, that Guterson judges his protagonists and finds them wanting.
His distaste continues in other stories; he seems to employ archetypes to make his point, and by archetypes I am very close to meaning offensive stereotypes, such as the Asian man with plenty of tech savvy and no social skills. In one story, Guterson seems to channel Philip Roth, giving us a truly vile caricature of a Jewish mother. In “Krassivetseh” a man takes his elderly Jewish — naturally, cantankerous and oblivious — father, who escaped from Germany in 1938, on a tour of Berlin. They are guided by a lovely woman with the last name of Wolf. The father thinks she is Jewish and feels free to insult Germany, which the saintly young woman takes in stride with grace and integrity. The effect is to make the old man seem rude and boorish, complaining about the Germans while being shown such wonderful forbearance and hospitality. Here and elsewhere Guterson exhibits not so much anti-Semitism as intellectual sloth. The dialogue is strictly from central casting and underneath the stories lurks an unexplained, and unearned, sourness.
In “Paradise,” a couple are about to have sex for the first time, a moment the woman oddly chooses to facilitate by reminiscing about her first love, a boy who at 16 froze to death waiting for her to meet him on a night when snow was heavy. If you are going to reiterate the denouement from a famous, stunning short story by a world-renowned author, you should at least try to be a bit lyrical about it. Lyricism of any kind is notably absent in Guterson’s view of modern life. It may be that absence is what accounts for the book’s air of disconsolate snobbery. The world has fallen short, Guterson seems to say, and the problem is people. They simply aren’t good enough for him.
Emily Carter is a writer and critic in New Haven, Conn., and the author of “Glory Goes and Gets Some.”