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Problems with People: Stories


Problems with People: Stories

David Guterson is best known for his hugely successful novel SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS, but his first published work was the story collection THE COUNTRY AHEAD OF US, THE COUNTRY BEHIND. Now, two decades and four novels later, he returns to the short story form with PROBLEMS WITH PEOPLE. 

Certainly Guterson’s maturity and life experience inform the problems with the people in these stories. In close third-person viewpoint, we live inside the heads of the characters as they react to a new woman in their life, a new tenant, their mother. The locales vary: from Seattle, familiar territory for Guterson characters, to South Africa, Berlin and Nepal. Many of the protagonists are professionals, many nominally Jewish, and all but one of them are middle-aged or older males. “Pilanesberg” features a man and his cancer-ridden sister temporarily locked in a wild animal preserve. In every story, unpleasantness, even horror, from the everyday to the historic, is noted with a keen but distanced eye.

"You will not find any direct moralizing here, and no overt resolution. But like photographs, these finely observed stories do expose us as assailed, as vulnerable."

“Another example: there was a lion in the park --- a rogue, bad, a lone hunter, crazy --- who serially killed lionesses averse to his advances and then, repeatedly, copulated with their dead bodies. Was it Pilanesberg that caused this, since, in effect, it was unnatural, a massive zoo?” The man is a photographer, spectacularly laid back. If he is sad about his sister’s pocked scalp, that sadness is not made explicit. The story ends with his taking pictures at dawn of the employees righting the garbage bins knocked over by baboons and meerkats “silently --- so as not to awaken the tourists in the chalets.” “He took pictures of them, too, because what else could he do in his situation? What should he do, beyond that?” 

In the story “Feedback,” a teacher worries about her encounter with a former colleague in a park. Did she snub him? She googles him, trying to ease her conscience. “She’d been mean, which was ironic, because she wasn’t mean, she moved through the world trying not to be mean, mainly because it was better in the moral sense, but also because it was easier. Making a big deal about things, taking a stand, getting emotional, getting assertive, insisting, reacting, making someone’s problem your problem --- she felt she was good at avoiding all of that.” As the days pass and she trades emails with her colleagues about the man Hamish, who had left the college under a cloud of suspicion, her guilt about him waxes and wanes. They discover that Hamish has a photography exhibit and decide to visit. She spends 45 minutes viewing his photos. “Hamish, whose daguerreotype days appeared to be over, shot in bald and garish light. His people were flagrant. You could see all their blemishes. He exposed them as assailed, as vulnerable.” 

You will not find any direct moralizing here, and no overt resolution. But like photographs, these finely observed stories do expose us as assailed, as vulnerable. To the extent that we relate to the characters, we are surprised, with them, when our expectations are thwarted; bewildered, sometimes, when what we think we know for certain is captured and shown in a different light. Guterson’s prose sparkles, and these stories make us think.

Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on June 13, 2014

Problems with People: Stories
by David Guterson

  • Publication Date: March 3, 2015
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0345807421
  • ISBN-13: 9780345807427