I grabbed Problems with People off of my stack of didn’t-read-before-publication review copies just as I was sliding into the infection that obliterated my entire month of November, so my impressions and memories of the stories it contains may be colored by illness. But it was a painful book to read. Let me be clear – the reading was easy. I finished the book in one evening. It was the stories themselves that were painful. In Problems with People, author David Guterson explores social awkwardness.
Like those movies where the characters behave so stupidly you cringe in your seat on their behalf, each story involves interactions between people that just don’t go quite right. A romantic encounter turns into a tearful confessional; an OCD landlord becomes too interested in a tenant; a woman snubs an old coworker and then guiltily obsesses over it for a week.
I wanted to distance myself from these pathetic characters. But their insecurities, their uncertainty in each situation, and the way they gnaw on their decisions in retrospect were all too familiar. I kept thinking, “How does he know?”
Guterson so deftly portrays the inner dialogues that we all (Oh God I hope it’s not just me) try so hard to hide behind faces of mature competence that reading these stories feels a little like pulling your fingernails out to see the pink skin underneath them.
It’s not all psychological torture, though. Guterson is a Pacific Northwest native and many of the stories are set locally. His depictions of place are as accurate and specific as his characterization, and it’s a lot of fun to mentally place events. I wouldn’t be surprised if his Berlin is as precise as his Seattle, too.
I first experienced Guterson as a nonfiction author when I picked up a copy of Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense in a box of free books outside the Seattle University Bookstore during my undergrad years. I was convinced that I would homeschool right up until I met my daughter, who refused to enter an empty room alone until she was six and who still resists sick days because she misses her friends.
Guterson is better known for his novels, particularly Snow Falling on Cedars. That book has been on my To Be Read list for almost 15 years. After reading Problems with People, it has once again risen near the top of that list. I like the idea of reading Guterson’s clear, insightful prose in a context that doesn’t hit quite as close to home.