“Problems with People” (David Guterson)

A purse seine showing the backdown and release of dolphins.  Image by the National Marine Fisheries Service (click for source)

A purse seine showing the backdown and release of dolphins.
Image by the National Marine Fisheries Service (click for source)

Alfred A. Knopf was kind enough to send me a review copy of David Guterson’s Problems with People and I think it’s a collection well worth talking about. First off, I really enjoyed reading it. The stories, while there are recurring themes (Jewishness, lawyers, father – son issues), are really diverse in subject. The book starts out with a trip that is the direct result of middle-age online dating. In just over 160 pages, it takes us to South Africa, Nepal, Berlin, Alaska, and rural Washington. There’s lots of travel, almost-travel, and mind-travel.

Guterson’s strength, in this collection, is his ability to write internal dialogue, the voice in our heads, the voice that tells us to be self-conscious about possible body odor, the internal processes that create a backstory and CV for a stranger as soon as we see them or take one step into their living space. We all do this — as for me, my first response to entering someone’s apartment or house is to look for books. (Surprise!) Whatever is or is not on their shelves (or coffee table, or any other open space they keep their books) forms part of what I think of them. How they treat their books is also a strong part of a first impression — are they on the shelf or on the floor, well-read, completely untouched, full of post-it notes, splayed face-down, open like a cleaned fish, or sporting bookmarks, and so on and so forth.

Guterson’s characters spend a lot of time talking in their heads, considering, debating with themselves whether or not to ask personal questions, how to sign an email, etc. They are ashamed of their parents’ behavior, miss their children, wonder if they should venture out of the safety and loneliness of single life. They travel to make up, to get away, to find or lose themselves and others.

David Guterson (Photo by Alan Berner / Bloomsbury)

David Guterson (Photo by Alan Berner / Bloomsbury)

I was impressed with the insightfulness and subtlety of “Krassavitseh” in particular. Writing across cultures is a tricky business. It’s easy to write within your own frame of reference, although it gets harder the more you travel, at least if you travel with an open mind, because you learn how relative your ‘truths’ are, which is a breeding ground for compassion. It seems Guterson himself has traveled with an open mind.

He is a keen observer of cultural idosyncracies, and the experience of the two men (a son and his aging father) traveling to Berlin to take the “Jewish Tour” there is a credible read for me as a non-American reader. I think the story illustrates both the difference between generations (the son looks at German history and his own Jewish roots differently than his father does) and between cultures (American and German, Jewish and non-Jewish).

I’ll be honest with you. Because I was taught so much about the atrocities of Hitler and his fascists when I was still too young to know what to do with this knowledge, and then taught the same things over and over for years growing up in Germany and going through the German school system, I actively avoid documentaries and monuments and museums dedicated to these events and the suffering associated with them. I do see why they are there. I just don’t choose to visit. I would not travel thousands of miles to see them. That said, there are many people like the father in Guterson’s story, people who need to see them, to know that their suffering, their families’ suffering did not go unnoticed and is not forgotten.

I can only speak for myself but I suspect many Germans are fairly ambivalent about their national identity. Outside of the football (i.e. soccer) World Cup season, you won’t see a lot of flags being flown, other than on election days (to show the locations where you can vote) and when it’s time to put the flag on half-mast nation-wide. On the other hand, if I had a dime for every flag I’ve seen since I got the U.S., I’d be a rich woman, and most people here weren’t even aware of the World Cup.

“Krassavitseh” is Yiddish for “beautiful woman” and this is what the aging father in the story says about the tour guide, Erika, on the flight back. This is at the end of the story, after he has taken in all of the sites, has learned a lot about Berlin’s darker history, and uncovered a few memories from his childhood, from before his family fled the country. This is also after he’s made very clear how he feels about Germans:

“The last thing I’d do is buy anything German — not a car, nothing, not even a pencil, and if this guy next to me hadn’t popped for my ticket, I never would have flown on Lufthansa.” Next he told Erika that he hated Volkswagens, and that “when my wife, who’s gone, gave me a Braun shaver, I traded it in for a Schick.” […] and when he saw them on the news drinking beer at Oktoberfest, he gave his television the finger. Germany didn’t have any artists or writers because Germans lacked souls. Their so-called philosophers were fascist pigs. (111)

The entire trip, the father was so focused on touring the “Topography of Terror” (as Gunterson puts it on 108) and recovering his own childhood and constructing his own identity that he did not take a single minute to talk to Erika as a person, or consider her as a person. The idea that she might not be Jewish, that she might, in fact, be a “goy” never enters his mind: “A Krassavitseh toured us around Berlin! A Jewish woman showed us Berlin!” (117)

The father has completely absorbed American culture: the first thing he does, when they arrive in Berlin, is try to get the sports scores on TV, which proves difficult, which in turn makes him upset. Then again, he uses the trip and the morbid “sightseeing” tour to reinforce his image of himself, his experience of himself as Jewish. A lot of Guterson’s characters seem caught between being American and being Jewish, feeling not quite fully American because of a sense of not being fully accepted by mainstream America.


In fact, that’s a sense present in all of the stories: a sense of not being quite accepted, whether it is the realization that you are treated like a child just because of a diagnosis, the realization that the partner will keep blaming you for the death of a child, or the fact that it doesn’t seem to matter whether or not the rumors about your ex-colleague’s affair with a student are true. Most of all, Guterson is a keen observer of weakness, vulnerability, and indecision.

Problems with People is aptly titled, because it is exactly about that, about the problems we have with ourselves, the problems we cause for ourselves and each other in following or refusing to follow social norms, or finding that for some situations there are no norms. The closing story, “Hush,” is my favorite. With all the trappings of a sappy, inspirational story (down-on-her-luck middle-aged dogsitter learns from wise but disillusioned lonely old man and his dog), it refuses to be either. Just as Bill, the dog, refuses to be friendly, Lou refuses to be Mister Miyagi. Toasting his dog, he says “Here’s to Fuckface.” and explains “I admired his bullshit. He’d tear the door down. He’d kill you for looking at him. He had this thing he did with his face” (156).

Here’s to problems with people, and to the fuckfaces in our lives.




About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

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