Problems with People: Stories

Problems with People

This is Guterson’s first story collection in nearly twenty years. Ignore the bland title for these stories set in his native Northwest and in foreign countries including Germany, South Africa, and Nepal are muscular, well-written, and anchored with a deep sense of place.  An air of melancholy and of possible tragedy hangs over a few of them, especially two of my favorites, “Pilanesberg” and “Krassavitseh.”

In “Pilanesberg” a brother visits his sister in Africa to go wildlife viewing, but you soon discover that the sister has cancer and her favorite thing to do is “sleep.” They share a wonderful experience viewing big mammals: elephants, tigers, etc. but the trip is marred by the fact that they animals are fenced in, and the couple find themselves at dusk locked in as well.  Next follows a humorous and ludicrous conversation with the gatekeeper who says he cannot let them out.

“Krassavitseh” tells the story of a middle-aged successful optometrist bringing his dad to Germany where his father lived shortly before WW II.  His father, a Jewish man, is ornery and sarcastic to the young beautiful and also guilt-ridden Jewish tour guide.

Guterson has a rich sardonic sense of humor, most present in the story “Tenant” where a landlord takes up an email correspondence with the new woman who has rented his condo. Mainly he sends Lydia Williams informational warnings about coming storms or what to do should a loss of power occur. He forwards “canned” messages under the heading FYI and only signs his initials. Then spends hours analyzing and reanalyzing whether he has revealed anything personal or if he intruded on Lydia’s privacy.

Talk about a neurotic stranger. Eventually, he must appear at the condo so he can show her where the water valve is located because he gave her the wrong directions (pre-renovation) and she cannot find it. Guterson’s wry description of his tenant’s outfit is a highlight of the story, “What was her look? Did it have a name? Mix and match? Potluck medley? Vintage anarchic? International clash?”

Guterson also writes about online dating in a story called “Paradise.” He takes on a third world labor strike in “Politics” where a man must fight his way around crowds of protestors and hundreds of poor begging children to visit his soon to be ex-wife in a hospital. And in “Feedback” a teacher cold-shoulders a former colleague in a park after rumors have floated that he has abused girls at a school rooftop weather station that he set up with his own money.

All the stories involve questions of right and wrong, and the belabored (at times) pangs of conscience after possibly making the wrong judgment. But every story is blessed with humor and Guterson’s deep understanding of the foibles and eccentricities of people.