Reviewed by John P. Sisk
Jon Krakauer has written a thoroughly familiar American story. Its central figure, a recent college graduate named Chris McCandless, is spiritually ill at ease in his well-to-do East Coast bourgeois home and strikes out on his own, impelled by a need to make a new life for himself.
In a haphazard way he sees a good deal of the Southwest, canoes down the Grand Canyon to Mexico, wanders about the Pacific coast and into Montana. Along the way he works in an Italian restaurant in Las Vegas, fries hamburgers for McDonald's, and works on a harvest crew. Determined to live authentically on the edge, he makes his way to Alaska where, provisioned with ten pounds of rice and a collection of his favorite paperbacks, he establishes himself north of Mt. McKinley in an abandoned Fairbanks city bus and proceeds to live off the land, supplementing his rice with moose meat, small game, and berries. In four months he is dead of starvation and the poisoning effect of wild potato seeds.
But what really makes this well- written book, which began as an article in Outside magazine, is the story of how Krakauer got it. He had the advantage of Chris' letters to friends, as well as his journals and the many photographs that were found with the body in the abandoned bus. Interviews with Chris' parents and sister and the people with whom he came into contact along the way have made possible a skillful reconstruction of the young man's effort to reinvent his life.
Important too is the extent to which the author's own experience in the Alaskan wild anticipated that of his subject. Over a twenty-year period he had gotten to know the country well as carpenter, fisherman, journalist, and occasionally as an imperilled mountain climber. He is in a position to recognize that Chris' naive idealism was greatly responsible for the mistakes that led to his death, but he knows too that a dismissive off-the-rack psychoanalysis of the impulse to live dangerously in the wild can miss something important. That insight is not only good for the story itself but can encourage readers to confront issues we are inclined to sentimentalize.
One of the most conspicuous of these issues is the all too familiar identification of civilization as a perverse system of restrictions aimed at denying the individual an environment in which he can achieve the fulfillment that is his birthright. One of Chris' friends recalls how often the young man's face "would darken with anger and he'd fulminate about his parents or politicians or the endemic idiocy of mainstream American life." For many of us this is the way sensitive young idealists ought to sound, and when they go boldly into the wilderness they ought to carry in their backpacks (as Chris did) Thoreau, Jack London, and Tolstoy. Doing so, they give comfort to the laggard rest of us, who are too inclined to live with our frustrations as comfortably as we can and too prudently content to experience wilderness as mere recreation.
Chris writes to a friend: "You must lose your inclination for a monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will first appear to you to be crazy." Like so many of our antinomian culture heroes, including Huckleberry Finn and of course Thoreau, he makes us uneasily aware of our attachment to money and the enslaving comforts it makes possible. Early in his Western tour he burns $123 in a morally mandated act of civil disobedience. According to his mother, even as a teenager he had been a Tolstoyan who "believed that wealth was shameful, corrupting, inherently evil." Indeed, his attitude towards money and its comforts sometimes suggests the ascesis that marked those athletes of God who, as Helen Waddell tells us so memorably in The Desert Fathers, were unable to resist the dangerous enchantments of the north African desert. Appropriately enough, then, when Krakauer considers the young man's farewell picture of himself we get this: "Chris McCandless was at peace, serene as a monk gone to God."
There is an aesthetic appeal in this image, as if it memorizes the poem of a life. When he writes to a friend, contrasting the deep peace of the wild with the discontent bred by cities, he claims that "It is enough that I am surrounded with beauty." On a piece of plywood inside the abandoned bus in which he died he identifies himself as "an extremist, an aesthetic voyager." It is an identification that goes with his passion for aloneness and his avoidance of enduring human commitments, whether to family or to the friends who help him get to Alaska. His proper affiliate is an avant-garde artist like the impressionist painter Paul Gauguin, for whom Tahiti was a necessary escape from his family and the contaminating commitments of bourgeois Europe. Alaska was Chris' Tahiti as Walden was Thoreau's. There he found that reality itself resists the attempt to separate the aesthetic elements of life from the ethical and the mundane.
If such "aesthetic idealists" as Gauguin and Thoreau taught us the dangerous-and in Chris' case deadly-separation of the aesthetic life, they also taught us to believe that only in the wild can a man be free from the aesthetic deadening of the civilized world. Young Chris found plenty of encouragement for his aesthetic bias against civilization. But after one hundred days in the wild, with death from starvation looming, he writes in his journal that he is "too weak to walk out, have literally been trapped in the wild." At this point we survivors might say that he has discovered the hard way that the experience of the wild may only be an indulgence that civilization subsidizes as part of its ongoing effort to define and refine itself against the counter efforts of the wild to have it all.