Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree. By the time he was ten, he could hit a running squirrel at fifty feet with a bow and arrow. When he turned twelve, he went out into the woods, alone and empty-handed, built himself a shelter, and survived off the land for a week. When he turned seventeen, he moved out of his family’s home altogether and headed into the mountains, where he lived in a teepee of his own design, made fire by rubbing two sticks together, bathed in icy streams, and dressed in the skins of the animals he had hunted and eaten. Thirty years after leaving his suburban existence to live in the wild, he's still there.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man is the biography of Eustace Conway, a North Carolina native, and possibly the last frontiersman in America. Gilbert links American masculinity to the wildness of the American frontier, citing descriptions of the American man by foreign visitors in the 18th and 19th centuries as a strong, noble, pure specimen. In contrast to the European tradition, where a young man moves from the country to the city to become a refined gentleman, the American man would strike out into the unknown from his comfortable city life, and come back a real, if less refined, man.

Conway is an entirely self-made man, sort of the American dream in reverse, since he goes from the suburbs to a teepee in the woods. As a child, he managed to teach himself to hunt, make fire, identify almost any plant, and tan hides all from library books. Having built a wilderness stronghold for himself using the skills he’s acquired, he believes that by introducing anyone to his way of life at Turtle Island (if you know where this comes from, I’ll give you the cookie that Jim never gave to me), his 1,200-acre, undisturbed valley west of Boone, North Carolina, he can give them the skills and drive necessary to create their own utopia. Unfortunately, his uncompromising demands for perfection out of others cause him to have flawed relationships with others that haunt him his entire life.

Eustace Conway is living a life that has become a metaphor for most of America. How many times have modern businessmen or politicians been compared to pioneers or trailblazers? But the problem in trying to convert modern Americans to archetypal, frontier Americans is that they don’t want to live the way Eustace does, they want him to exist as proof that it’s still possible, that they could if they wanted to. The biggest impediment to Conway’s plan to save humanity is his own pride and stubbornness. He swears that he’ll never treat anyone as horribly as his father treated him, but only ends up repeating the cycle, demanding of others the same level of inhuman perfection and commitment that he demands of himself, alienating his own disciples in the process. Over time, he’s forced to compromise his pure wilderness ideals at the cost of further spreading his message, which doesn’t take hold in nearly the tidal wave fashion he’d expected. In the end it’s hard to be sympathetic to someone who’s willing to sacrifice the happiness and comfort of so many to achieve his ultimate goal, even if that goal is to cure societal ills and prevent environmental degradation.

This was a very interesting biography of a fascinating, committed, wild life. Having entertained thoughts of living in the wild, this book is sort of a primer on the dedication it actually demands of you, and maybe a warning against what it can make of you. Elizabeth Gilbert’s writing is very casual and personal, but because of the depth of material and her proximity to the subject, it doesn’t come off as contrived, but rather very appealing. With this book as an introduction to Gilbert, I’m looking forward to reading her memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. This was a great book, but if you were bothered by the headstrong, independent nature of Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild, you’ll probably be annoyed with Eustace Conway in the same way, though his setting out isn’t nearly as severing of all ties as McCandless’s. Great book, but I don’t plan on setting out with a tepee and two bandannas as a loincloth any time soon, just gonna keep practicing nailing chipmunks to trees with throwing knives.

1 comment:

Brooke said...

I had a class with the love of Eustace Conway's life and she made us keep dream journals and do interpretive dancing.
Also, you can pay a ton of money to visit Turtle Island for the day to shoot your own dinner and hang out with his minions. I decided to turn that offer down.