These ten wise, extraordinary tales explore the mysteries of love and our complex desire for connection. Spanning wide and diverse geographies—America, Nepal, South Africa, Germany—they showcase Guterson’s gifts for psychological nuance, emotional suspense, and evocation of the natural world.
In these pages, we meet, among others, a lonely landlord trying to reach out to his tenants; a middle-aged widower looking for love online; an American Jew traveling to Berlin to confront his haunted past. Celebrating the surprises that lurk within the dramas of our daily lives, Problems with People marks the return of a contemporary American master to the form that launched his literary career.
About the Author
Hometown:Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound
Date of Birth:May 4, 1956
Place of Birth:Seattle, Washington
Education:M.A., University of Washington
Read an Excerpt
They went in late September, starting out on I-5, which she handled by staying in the right lane with ample braking distance, keeping her hands at nine and three on the wheel, and disdaining speeders and tailgaters. No problem there—he found her driving style charming enough. She was a silver beauty in a dark-blue Honda Element—one of those boxy, hip-to-be-square cars—with nearly inaudible public-radio chatter on fade, and all of that was fine, too. She wore a jean jacket with mother-of-pearl buttons, an ironed pastel skirt, and suede lace sandals. Her eyes were green, her smile was warm, and she didn’t talk just to fill space. She seemed self-sufficient but not cold about it. In her politics, she was not so liberal as to be obnoxious, but not so conservative as to suggest one-upmanship. She didn’t pretend to be an organic farmer, kitchen goddess, world traveler, yoga master, or humanitarian; neither was she reactionary with regard to those personas. She was green but not gloomy and, though not indifferent to approaching sixty, not obsessed by it, either. She had a good sense of humor—quiet and subtle. She didn’t expect to live forever via exercise and a healthy diet. She understood that he was still in the aftermath—damaged goods—without making it central to the way she treated him. In short, so far he wasn’t disenchanted. But he still expected to be.
How had this happened—this trip to Paradise? Via match.com, that was the simple answer. The idea that he would need match.com—he wouldn’t have predicted it, hadn’t seen that he would go there. But match.com was what people did now, and actually, it made sense. It saved single people trouble and grief, decreased their disappointments and misunderstandings. Digitalized, you put yourself out there, minus the pretense that it was other than what it was. You cut to the chase without preliminaries. And the people you met were just like you—they’d also resorted to match.com—so you didn’t have to feel embarrassed, really, unless you wanted to do that together and mutually laugh at yourselves.
They’d skipped that step—the self-loathing self-punctures—opting instead for straightforwardness in a wine bar, where he told her immediately about his wife, and she told him about her former husband, long remarried. He described his children—a boy out of college and a girl still in, both thousands of miles from him—and she described her energetic twin sons, who’d found good marriage partners, stayed in Seattle, and started a successful business together, selling “hand-forged” donuts. He knew about her work from her match.com profile, but asked about it anyway, as a matter of course: sociology at Seattle University, and doing research, right now, on social networks and epidemiology. His turn arrived: commercial litigation, specializing in securities fraud. What exactly was securities fraud? And so they got through their first date.
Their second—which he initiated, though the first had been arduous and painful—was for an early dinner and Russian chamber music. Russian chamber music was her idea, something she had enough of an interest in to have accepted, gratis, two tickets from a colleague; they might as well go, why not, they agreed, since neither knew the first thing about Russian chamber music but both were willing to find out about it. At dinner in a warehouse full of people half their age, he discovered that his date was allergic to peanuts, a light eater, and a morning lap swimmer. The World Health Organization, in conjunction with FIND—Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics—had sent her during her sabbatical, last year, to study sleeping sickness in Uganda. No, she hadn’t traveled elsewhere in Africa, but she had gone to Geneva for a WHO convention in the middle of her Ugandan research, and to Dublin on her way home to see a friend with ALS. Dublin was a subject he could talk about a little. He’d played semi-pro basketball in Cork for three seasons. A minor sport there—give them hurling instead. What’s hurling? she wondered genially. Golf without rules, he replied.
Did he play golf, then? Never, he assured her. Golf courses, they agreed, were a waste of water, although, like cemeteries, they relieved the eye of urban density. What, then? For exercise? He rode a bicycle to work five days a week. He confessed to dressing like a bike nerd to do it—the polyester jersey, the Lycra shorts, the waterproof helmet cover, the fingerless gloves. The fluorescent, high-visibility colors. The weekend racer’s flourishes and trim. Was all of that a mistake? He couldn’t tell. Self-deprecation could easily backfire. Calling yourself a geek: surely counterproductive. He shut up about bicycling and engaged her on politics: what did she think about tearing down the viaduct and replacing it with a tunnel through downtown Seattle? They ate, split the bill, and walked toward the chamber music: twilight in the city, just a little car breeze; a waif with anything helps scrawled on cardboard. “Maybe,” he thought, “my chinos are wrong,” but she hadn’t really dressed up, either—black with a little sparkle in her sweater. Still, she had that notable feature—the lustrous head of bobbed silver hair—that would cover her when semi-formal was required, as it might be required for Russian chamber music.
As it turned out, he didn’t love or hate the chamber music, had no strong feelings one way or the other about the string quartet and attractive young pianist playing Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich, but he did notice something in Benaroya Hall that spurred him toward a third date. Sitting beside this new and unfamiliar woman in box seats over a corner of the proscenium, he was keenly aware of her well-coiffed hair, her straight carriage, and her hands in her lap, and he found himself excited. And scared.
Their third date was for dinner at an Italian restaurant that afforded plenty of privacy. There they broached sex in plain, honest terms. He told her he didn’t know what would happen in bed. He said he hadn’t slept with anyone but his wife for twenty-six years—then add on the six months since she’d died of a heart attack while in the middle of leaving him for someone new.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and other material that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about Problems with People, David Guterson’s stirring new collection of stories that explore questions of identity, communication, and heritage through the kaleidoscopic lens of characters whose longings and misgivings bring them to unfamiliar landscapes, both geographical and emotional.
1. The man in “Paradise” takes comfort in the fact that on online dating sites, “The people you met were just like you” (4). How can this idea be applied to all of the stories in this collection? What were some areas of common ground—such as family secrets, personal insecurities, or questions of faith or national pride—among individuals, but also things we keep to ourselves?
2. How do the older man and woman who begin dating in “Paradise” exemplify the way that meeting new people creates insecurities and awkwardness, regardless of one’s age or experience? How does Guterson use the past and memories in their story to affect a present relationship?
3. In “Tenant,” Lydia Williams is called a “cryptic nonpresence . . . invisible, an abstraction,” yet her presence very much shapes the story (24). How does this paradoxical description fit other characters in the book, especially those without names and who do not speak in the first-person “I”?
4. What do you think is the real reason the renter is bothered by how Lydia changes his apartment? Does her excessive décor seem similar to any part of his personality?
5. When Shawn reveals to Lydia that he is Indian, he does so “without knowing exactly what that meant about himself” (41). What do you think is meant here, and how might this be true of other ethnicities, cultures, and religions featured in the book?
6. What is the importance of different forms of travel—by car, foot, boat, or plane—and the general sense of dislocation in the stories? Does traveling help the characters gain a stronger sense of identity or further their feelings of isolation?
7. Discuss some of the tonal and thematic differences that arise from stories with male versus female protagonists. Compare, for example, “Politics” and “Feedback.”
8. How does learning that the woman in “Pilanesberg” has cancer change your reading of the story? Does ending the story with this kind of surprise, twist, or reveal—as Guterson does in some other stories in this collection—give these snapshots of a complete life?
9. Why do you think the woman in “Feedback” is so stressed by meeting Hamish McAdam on the track? How does the dissection of his name—its seemingly incongruous ethnicities—contribute to that stress? Are other characters’ names in different stories, or the fact that they go unnamed, laden with similar expectations and preconceived ideas?
10. Discuss the significance of the title of the story “Feedback.” In particular, what do you think the woman takes away from reading the plaque in Hamish’s exhibit, defining feedback as “a way of looking, ultimately, at ‘self’” (87)?
11. How does the theme of Jewishness affect characters’ identities and relationship to history, especially in the latter half of the collection?
12. Is there a correlation between age and a character’s sense of his or her running out of time? Compare stories in which missed opportunities are experienced by people of different ages, such as “Photograph” and “Paradise” versus “Shadow” and “Hush.”
13. What are some of the major ideas about father-son bonds that you take away from the collection? Consider “Hot Springs,” “Shadow,” and “Photograph.”
14. What does the snapshot of Hutchinson’s son at the end of “Photograph” illustrate about the nature of memory, and how emotions are preserved and revised over time? How do photographs function in general throughout the collection? Consider “Pilanesberg” and “Feedback” as well.
15. The young tour guide in “Krassavitseh” notes that there are many “ghosts” throughout Berlin, which has obvious references within that story (106). What are some other ghosts in the collection that are resurrected by forces such as memory, age, and illness? How do other characters, including those of different generations, confront these ghosts, which may or may not be specters of specific people?
16. Guterson has written in a variety of genres and forms: novels, short stories, poetry, memoir, and nonfiction. Do you think that the stories in this collection demonstrate fluidity in shifting among modes, especially in their tone and style? Which stories seem to you to be more clearly influenced by his writing outside of fiction? How does he use these other styles to achieve a sense of realism?