David Guterson delightfully dazzles, skewers all in new novel

Oct 30 2011 - 1:23pm

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David Guterson
David Guterson

"ED KING." By David Guterson. Knopf. $26.95

The Greek gods ran a pitiless universe. In the pre-Christian world, even the most standout specimen of humanity could get ensnared in the cogs of fate. If you showed even a glint of human hubris, you were asking for it -- remember Icarus? Oedipus?

David Guterson's brilliant new novel, "Ed King," mirrors that world, but it sets the wheels in motion in none other than 1960s Seattle, as it follows the city's transformation from a sleepy, self-satisfied city to a 21st-century tech powerhouse. Ambition and desire drive the plot (it must be said that there is a whole lot of sex in this book) along with the fundamental irony that the road to hell is often paved with good intentions.

"Ed King" begins in 1962, the year of the Seattle World's Fair. Actuary Walter Cousins hires Diane Burroughs, a British exchange student, as a nanny after Walter's wife is hospitalized for a mental breakdown: "At just the right moment, this dazzling girl, brimming with pluck and perpetual good humor, domestically energetic, chipper, and playful, had landed on Walter's doorstep. What a miracle!"

And what luck -- but not the good kind. A born-and-bred con artist, Diane gets pregnant with Walter's child, extorts lifetime support payments from him, runs away and leaves her baby son on a Portland doorstep. She moves up and on, using high-class prostitution as an entree to marriage to the heir to a Northwest sporting-goods dynasty, which allows her to lavish time and money on slowing the ravages of age. It is downright eerie how ably and gleefully Guterson has channeled Diane, a lower-class Brit without a moral bone in her body but with a genius for finding the weak and sweet spot of her targets.

Diane's abandoned baby is adopted by Dan and Alice King, a Jewish couple living in Seattle's North End, who attend a liberal synagogue and almost certainly walked right out of Guterson's upbringing (Guterson, author of the best-selling "Snow Falling on Cedars," was born and raised in Seattle and still lives in the area). Ardently devoted parents, the Kings decide -- for baby Ed's sake, of course -- that it really would be better if they don't tell their son that he's adopted. They brush off the bleak warning of Alice's father, Pop, an oracle of Jewish fatalism:

"Pop sneezed into the phone. 'Excuse me,' he said. 'It's lying, this business. The tooth fairy's lying, the golem is lying, Santa Claus is lying, all of it lying, but this, Mr. Eddie, not adopted, that's lying lying, that's Number Nine of the Ten Commandments lying. Listen Daniel, I'm telling you from my heart, you want more tsuris than you already got? Go ahead -- tell this lie!'aa"

At first, it seems no one will suffer. Ed thrives, and Alice soon gives birth to another son. Both boys are brilliant, avid to excel at just about everything. Ed loves superhero stories: "For Eddie to be playing so powerfully with myth and story at such a young age is, I think, an excellent sign," writes one of his teachers.

Or maybe Ed just likes to play with fire. As he enters his teens, Ed spurns private school, hangs out with the stoners and slackers at Nathan Hale High School, and has wild sex with his Goth girlfriend in the back of his 1966 Pontiac GTO in the back alleys and back roads of the state. In a moment of blind rage and youthful hubris, he runs a hapless middle-age guy off a deserted Eastern Washington highway, launching himself on the road to his own fate.

"Ed King" is compulsively readable and witheringly funny. Guterson's narrative voice -- by turns savage and sad, amused and outraged -- becomes a kind of Greek chorus of one. From the self-reverential blather of Seattle liberals to the gaming industry's nihilistic love of violence to the winner-take-all world of software and search engines, Guterson skewers it all, as he tracks Ed's ascendancy to the top of the tech world as the "King of Search."

He interweaves the story with enough mythological references to keep even the most ardent classicist entertained. Cybil (Sybil), an automated voice programmed to react to Ed's every whim, question and demand, is the guide to the underworld in Virgil's "Aeneid." Pythia, Ed's search company, is the name of the priestess of the Oracle of Delphi. Chance and probability play a huge role in this book, from Walter's actuarial profession to a tarot-card reader who tells Ed, a randy young Stanford student with a thing for older women: "Get out of here, you arrogant bastard. You're dangerous to the world and to yourself."

It's almost as if Ed is demanding that attention be paid. And he gets it -- Diane. A creature of pure selfishness, she has a Brit outsider's gimlet-eyed view of hypocrisy, American-style, using her smarts and wit in the service of snaring Walter, marrying up in Portland and dealing dope in Kirkland, reeling her customers in with her "diligently nice" persona and her posh English accent. From high-class prostitute to "life coach" for wayward young Eastside millionaires, Diane has her finger on America's yearning, fluttering pulse.

Ed is less finely drawn; it's not entirely clear what drives him, other than the will to succeed, dominate and get what he wants, whatever the cost.

And maybe that's the point.

The technological titans of "Ed King," walled off in their Eastside estates and San Juan Islands kingdoms and privy to the best life (and life-extending methods) that money can buy, strive and strain with little thought to where all their efforts might be headed. It forces the thought: What have all the technological achievements of Microsoft, Amazon, Apple wrought, when it comes to changing certain fundamental certainties of human nature?

Ed believes the sky is the limit: "Superior intelligence will beget superior intelligence, until, in theory, all problems are solved -- that's the promise, the hope, the glory, the Holy Grail, the dream of a messianic age. ...

"aa'I mean change the world,' said Ed. "I mean overcome death itself.'aa"

Will Ed cheat death? Will he dodge the bullet of fate? In the world of "Ed King," what brings the all-powerful "King of Search" to his final reckoning will keep the reader enthralled until the final page of this transcendently dark and dazzling book.

-- Mary Ann Gwinn

The Seattle Times

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