Filed under: Book Reviews, Nonfiction | Tags: alexander supertramp, book review, books, christopher mccandless, into the wild, jon krakauer, literature
During my two years as a writing tutor at Rutgers I spent a lot of time talking about Christopher McCandless, aka Alexander Supertramp. An excerpt of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild was one of the texts in the expository writing textbook, and also one of the most popular pieces in the book. Every single underpaid grad student teaching expos assigned their students one or two essays on this excerpt, so that for one or one-and-a-half months each semester I spent six hours a day asking my students such probing questions as, “Why did McCandless go into the wild? What can you find away from other humans? What does it mean that even when he was in the wild he was living in a bus?”
It’s one of the stranger things about that kind of work that, now that I’ve actually read Into the Wild, I think it’s best that I hadn’t even read the excerpt at the time I was helping my students. For two years I asked my students the kinds of questions about this text that you need to ask in order to write a paper for an expository writing class, but that I would have had a harder time asking if I’d read more than a few scattered sentences from Krakauer’s work.
Almost inevitably a review of this book comes down to a response to McCandless’s actions and his travels. Anyone who reads my blog regularly can see that Krakauer has, over the past six months, become my “Go To Adventure Writer;” clearly I’ve got no qualms with his writing style. His choices in Into the Wild are as solid as ever, and even those parts that sounded questionable when I began reading (like that he would write a fairly extensive segment on his own youthful Incidents of Hubris) work when taken in the context of the narrative as a whole. Krakauer rightly understands that not everyone will understand why a privileged 22-year-old guy would, after graduating college, donate the full contents of his bank account and take off without so much as a goodbye or warning to his family, to spend two years traveling the United States in car and then by foot, avoiding any and all deeper connection with the people he met along the way, until winding up in Alaska where he would starve to death. Writing about his climb of the Devils Thumb in Alaska as a 23-year-old, Krakauer gets at the mindset that might have gripped McCandless at times, without committing that horror show error of stating, “This is who McCandless was and what he thought.”
Given Krakauer’s solid writing, my reading of it might best be documented by paraphrasing the back and forth of my Armchair Traveler mind. But to give a little away, Krakauer does a good job as ever in this book; it provides a far fuller picture of McCandless’s life, travels and errors than does the film, so that my poor opinion of the kid has faded over the few days I spent reading Into the Wild.
Adventure Ellen: Chris McCandless has abandoned all the useless and limiting trappings of modern existence to go Into the Wild. I too would like to go Into the Wild.
Sofa Ellen: Isn’t that why you joined the Peace Corps? Some day you will delete your Peace Corps blog so no one knows you spent two years drinking coffee and reading, and will tell adventurous stories of your time in Macedonia. Remember that time you waited all alone on the side of the road in the freezing rain waiting for a kombi or ride back to Debar? For two hours? Now that’s an adventure!
Adventure Ellen: But before I do so, I should be sure not to highlight any “meaningful” passages in books I am reading, so as not to guide people into crafting elaborate theories on my mindset or sexual practices. The reader’s version of putting on clean underwear before heading outdoors. Just in case.
Sofa Ellen: Christopher McCandless spent two years traveling around the country doing things that probably should have killed him but owing to sheer luck didn’t, until something did. He also ate a lot of rice and wild game. Are you prepared to do that?
Adventure Ellen: When I am done with the Peace Corps, I will travel India for two months. I will journey to Thailand and Cambodia and Vietnam. I will experience the life of the people. Then I will go home and hike the Appalachian Trail.
Sofa Ellen: The last time you went on a hike it was three hours long and you complained the entire time. You said your ears hurt and you were tired. Maybe you don’t want to admit that Christopher McCandless was made of sterner stuff than you are.
Adventure Ellen: Sure he died, but before he did he explored the country in a way few of us will ever do. He shot animals and ate them. He read meaningful books. He wrote postcards to many people he met on his journeys, but never to his parents. He crossed into Mexico by riding a canoe through a dam. After I hike the Appalachian Trail I will take a cross-country road trip.
Sofa Ellen: You don’t own a car, and besides, whatever trip you take will be the opposite of McCandless’s. You will sleep in hotels and eat real meals. As stupid as some people think McCandless was for dying in Alaska in the summertime several miles from a river crossing that would have led him back to civilization, you are more stupid. You could not survive for a week in the Alaskan wilderness, let alone sixteen. What are you thinking?
Adventure Ellen: Maybe he died, but he lived more fully in the two years before dying than I ever will. I do not want to go back to America and work in an office for the rest of my life. I want to travel the world seeing new things and being awed by the sheer beauty of our world. I do not want to sit at a desk for eight hours a day. I want to live off the land and experience my body as a Strong and Capable Instrument of Movement rather than as a receptacle for Macedonian snack foods.
Sofa Ellen: How is it that you’ve just finished reading a book about a boy who died while escaping modern society and “experiencing the natural world” and still want to imitate him?
Adventure Ellen: Americans were built to travel. Why do you think we all want to go on the Great American Roadtrip? We were built to head west, and I can no longer tamp down my desire to see The World that Exists Outside the Trappings of our Society and All its Rules. I want to experience the world as it really is!
Sofa Ellen: Did you learn nothing from this book? Even McCandless didn’t escape the “trappings of society” while he was in Alaska. He was mere miles from markers of society that would have saved his life. He lived in a bus. He read books. You can do your best to ignore the human world by pretending it is not there, like he did, but there is nowhere you can go anymore where you will not run into markers of civilization.
Adventure Ellen: I will hike the Appalachian Trail.