David Guterson's 'Ed King' captures today's Seattle darkly

The writer of evocative Northwest tales has turned from the region's natural beauty toward urban life, which he caricatures even as he brings us the news of what Seattle has become.

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The writer of evocative Northwest tales has turned from the region's natural beauty toward urban life, which he caricatures even as he brings us the news of what Seattle has become.

Few writers evoke the beauty and mystery of the Northwest as deftly as David Guterson.  Like William Faulkner, Guterson is a regional writer in the best sense of the term, using the Northwest as material to create characters and stories exploring universal questions: the internment of the Japanese Americans during World War II (Snow Falling on Cedars, 1994), searching for meaning in the face of death (East of the Mountains, 1999); faith, spirituality and Marian appearances (Our Lady of the Forest, 2003), the nature of friendship (The Other, 2008), and now the fabulous wealth and hubris of the high-tech generation (Ed King, 2011).

Like many Northwest writers, Guterson celebrates the deep connections between people and place. But he is not a deterministic writer; his work turns on the complex interaction between characters and locale, the characters making their choices based on their unique personalities and not simply on their race, class, economic status, or material circumstances.

Earlier works like the bestselling Snow Falling on Cedars and Our Lady of the Forest celebrated the natural world in all its vibrancy and richness. Recently, he has turned his attention to the urban landscape and its distinct dramatis personae, first in The Other, and now Ed King, which is perhaps the most entertaining account of contemporary Seattle ever written.  Guterson captures these distinct environments so convincingly in part because of he knows them intimately.

A Northwest native, Guterson was born May 4, 1956, in Seattle. He attended the University of Washington where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English and an MFA in Creative Writing. He married at 23 and worked as a teacher for 12 years, honing his craft through writing for Esquire, Sports Illustrated and Harper's Magazine.

Guterson stands out not only for his talent, but his sheer tenacity. In the early years, he rose around 4 a.m. to write for a couple hours before getting his family up and ready for school. It took him seven years to write Snow Falling on Cedars, the patience paying off as the novel became a bestseller and inspired a popular movie of the same name. He no longer teaches, but sticks to a strict writing schedule, allowing him to regularly publish outstanding novels.

The settings in all of his novels powerfully influence the story and the narrative style. He grounds these settings with authentic details capturing the region in all its wonder, mystery, and evanescent beauty.

 “The practical side is I’m pretty much stuck with this area,” he said in an interview published in 2008. “I’ve never lived anywhere else and I don’t know any other place, so it’s sort of for-better-or-for-worse. I have to write about here, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a good way to get to know a place inherently, without making any conscious effort to study it. It’s my life, the world I walk around in and live in, and that gives me a lot of confidence when it’s time to write about it.” 

A deep feel for the Northwest landscape pervades Snow Falling on Cedars and his other novels, even his latest, Ed King (Knopf, 304 pp., $26.95), where the high tech culture of contemporary Pugetopolis takes center stage. Rather than the backwater locale of San Pietro Island in Snow Falling on Cedars, this new novel takes place amid the hyper-wealth of the urban Northwest in the high tech boom. A dark, satirical version of the Oedipus myth, the novel recounts the rise and fall of Ed King, the founder of a Google-like company with ambitions to organize and search all of human knowledge.

In contrast with the brooding, pessimistic protagonist Ishmael Chambers of Snow Falling on Cedars, Ed King is a larger than life figure--charismatic, athletic, mathematically brilliant, and unusually self-absorbed, resembling  tech titans like Bill Gates, Paul Allen, or Steve Jobs, who created incredible wealth in an area once known for clams and salmon.

While previous generations of Northwest writers shied away from writing about cities and urban life, Guterson has increasingly focused on it. First with The Other, which brings to life Seattle in the 70s better than any previous book. And now with Ed King, which uses the genre of the foundlings’ tale to illuminate the world of high tech Seattle in the digital age of the last 20 years.

The novel opens in 1962 at the Seattle World’s Fair, a signal event in the history of the city. Baby-boomer locals will appreciate references to the Bubblelator and other period esoterica. Walter Cousins, a married actuary and father of two, takes his kids and saucy English au pair Diane Burroughs to the fair, triggering an infatuation. Their affair lasts a month and results in her pregnancy. She bears the child, arranges for it to be put up for adoption, and blackmails Walter into paying her hush money, which helps bankroll her career as a high-class hooker.

The premise is an old one but it seems fresh because of Guterson’s sympathetic imagination.  The novel is a feat of literary ventriloquism, with Guterson assuming the identities of characters as different as English hooker Burroughs and the monomaniacal tech wizard Ed King (the adopted child whom she unknowingly marries), thus skillfully conjuring a world enormously different from those of his previous novels:

Ed and Diane did a lot together in the second half of Bush Senior’s administration. They saw Green Day and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They saw “modern tap” at the Egyptian, Cirque du Soleil at Marymoor Park, Tom Jones at the Paramount, Herbie Hancock at Jazz Alley, and Penn & Teller at the 5th Avenue. They ate regularly at Il Terrazzo Carmine. They visited the Burke Museum, did the Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding dinner show, and sunbathed at Alki. They rented a canoe and toodled around Lake Washington, took the train to Glacier Park — white tablecloth, private berth — stayed for three nights at Paradise on Mount Rainier, then three at Mount Hood, and then three at Crater Lake.

Guterson caricatures the world of yuppified urban Seattleites, a sharp departure from his previous novels. The characters’ lives are woven into the larger fabric of local and national history, giving readers a glimpse of a Northwest and nation emerging as we speak. In this, Guterson fulfills the novelist’s role of bringing the news, an approach to fiction championed in Tom Wolfe’s landmark essay, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.”

While enjoyable as social commentary, the novel doesn’t prove as aesthetically satisfying as some of his previous titles. Most of the cast lacks the density and appeal of those in Snow Falling on Cedars, for example. Ed may be exceptional, but he is not sympathetic. Early in the book, he runs a driver off the road, causing the driver’s car to tumble into the ditch, killing the man. Ed shows brief remorse, but soon forgets the incident, though it proves central to the story, as it turns out the man is his biological father, Walter.

The book’s few admirable characters demonstrate a sense of human limits and fallibility. One of the book’s most appealing figures is Guido Sternvad, pilot of Ed’s Gulfstream jet. Ed believes he can pilot the jet but when he asks, Guido refuses. The contrast between Guido and Ed provides for amusing and telling discussions near the end of the book. Whereas Ed respects no limits, Guido understands his limits and those of his aircraft.

Guido says,  “We got a rule in aviation. And that rule is, the skipper of the plane, the head pilot — me — that person has say over everything — everything. I’m the one in charge of what happens. I’m God here, okay? You’re along for the ride.”

Ed resents Guido’s refusal to yield authority over the aircraft to him. He thinks that if he owns something, he can do what he wants with it. Guido contradicts him, arguing that safety comes first. Guido’s competence and pride in his chosen profession contrast with Ed’s hubris. The disagreement is more than academic.

Near the novel’s end, Diane flees the couple’s Eastside compound for their English castle, despairing over her marriage to the son put up for adoption. When Ed discovers she’s gone, he goes after her, piloting his Gulfstream as Guido pilots Diane’s jet. Guido radios Ed, warning him of a thundercloud ahead. He advises him not to fly over it as that will exceed the jet’s ceiling. Ed ignores the advice.

“I’m going over that problem. I’ll show Guido Sternvad how it’s supposed to be done. I’ll show him how to really fly a plane. I’m me, after all, the king of Pythia, the King of Search and no one can take that away from me, ever.”

Alas, some limits cannot be exceeded without paying a price. Ed’s Gulfstream stalls at altitude, and craters into the ground. Like Icarus, Ed has flown too high above the earth and now pays the price. While the ending reprises the Greek emphasis on hubris leading to tragedy, the novel doesn’t feel especially tragic. Unlike Ishmael in Snow Falling on Cedars, Ed never really develops as a character. He isn’t devastated to learn he murdered his father and married his mother, violating two of the oldest, deepest taboos of human culture. He shows no remorse and so cannot be called tragic.

Ed King serves as an entertaining if cautionary tale, a satire of the tech world rather than a contemplative literary meditation like Snow Falling on Cedars, with its lovingly evoked landscape and rich cast of characters. But Guterson deserves credit for creating a whole new fictional universe. The characters in Ed King are fresh and original and while not especially sympathetic, prove entertaining and thought-provoking in their own right. In this, Guterson fulfills the novelist’s oldest obligation: to bring us the news.


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