The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind by David Guterson

63310Fiction — print. Vintage, 1996. Originally published 1989. 176 pgs. Purchased.

Guterson’s collection of short stories are largely set in the Pacific Northwest and are focused on the transition from childhood to adulthood and the relationship between man and nature. There are another six stories in the collection for a total of ten, but the four recounted below are the ones that stood out to me as I was reading the collection and the ones that continue to remain with me in the two weeks since I finished reading them.

In “Moonwalk”, the young narrator recounts his family’s move from Oregon to Seattle. His parents were convinced Seattle would offer them more opportunities than cleaning a motel along the Oregon coast, and both the narrator and his brother were excited about exploring the city and growing up to become baseball players. Such excitement is dashed, though, when his older brother suffers an injury that makes playing sports difficult and his mother takes cleaning jobs to support the family.

In “Piranhas”, the teenager narrator amasses a fish collection, the only pet approved by his parents. He quickly grows bored with the docile fish, though, and after some egging on by his friends, he decides to purchase piranhas from the local pet store and introduce these flesh-eating fish to those in his collection. The frenzied eating he expects doesn’t happen, but his parents are put off by the presence of these bizarre fish and demand his get rid of them. As he does so, his anger towards his parents leads him to fantasize about what would happen if he feed his parents to the piranhas.

In “Opening Day”, the narrator is out duck hunting with his son, Sean, and his father, referred to as Pop. As the day ends and the narrator drives his father and son back into the city, he comes to realize that his father’s days of duck hunting are likely over. His father moves slower and appears frailer than he last remembered Pop being. At the same time, though, Pop is reaching his own conclusions about attending next year’s opening day for duck hunting.

The first story in this collection, “Angels in the Snow”, is the one that stands out as an outlier in the collection. In this story, the adult narrator is asked by his wife, his friend, and his friend’s wife to share whether or not he has ever had sex with a prostitute in Las Vegas. He shares this elaborate story about how he was offered sex but changed his mind at the last minute. His wife, of course, doesn’t believe him, letting him know that when the other couple leaves them.

None of these stories are particularly happy or uplifting, but I enjoyed them for their presentation of people are different ages struggling with feelings of inadequacy. And I, once again, enjoyed Guterson’s writing style. I only wish the other stories were more memorable. As it is, the collection is a bit of a mixed bag for me.

This is my eleventh book for #20BooksofSummer. I can’t recall when or where I purchased this book. Only that I was quite happy to source it after reading and loving Guterson’s ‘Snow Falling on Cedars‘ in 2014.


    • These just might be the perfect short stories for you, Jeane. I lived briefly in the Pacific Northwest, and it’s why I’m always willing to give something outside my normal genre a try.


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