Highly Recommended Reading: The Last American Man

I gave Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love a warm but restrained review.  At the end of that book, though, I saw an ad for her previous book, The Last American Man, her biography of modern mountain man Eustace Conway.  The blurb noted that Conway had been a survivalist since his teens, and had been living in the woods full-time since 1977, in addition to such stunts as walking the entire length of the Appalachians and riding a horse from coast to coast.  I got this book quickly, devoured it ravenously, and am delighted to say that my praise for this book of Gilbert’s will see no trace of the hesitations I gave her most recent and more popular effort.  The Last American Man is easily the best thing I’ve read so far this year.

One of the problems with Eat, Pray, Love is that it often reads like an unedited diary.  This friendly casualness is largely a strength, but it can become grating when someone dwells for so long on the neurotic nuances of their own head.  My only expectation upon opening The Last American Man was that Gilbert’s gift for prose might work more effectively if she were not at the center of the action, and I was greatly rewarded–her narration of anecdotes, her sequencing of events, and her general sense of balance and perspective throughout the book are nearly flawless.  This is a top-notch biography. 

Gilbert does perhaps spend a bit too much time reporting on Conway’s love life, but if so, it’s a small fault.  The women who have factored into Conway’s life make his story richer, and show us even more of the man himself.

And Conway is the hero of this book, in any sense of the word.  Gilbert worships him, and his plain but forceful life demands our respect and esteem–not to mention that it’s seriously entertaining.  Any preconceptions you might have about Conway based on what I’ve said so far will be shattered by the deep reality of his true story.  Is he some misanthropic, Luddite, neo-Unabomber nut?  Nope, he’s a kind, sociable, down-to-earth everyman who is constantly in touch with people.  He doesn’t hate the modern world so much as he just loves nature.  Is he a redneck hick?  No, he earned an honors degree from a college while he was already living his dream in the forest.  Is he a navel-gazing, starry-eyed hippie?  Not at all.  He’s actually a shrewd businessman who works tirelessly to build and develop his land and school for people who want to learn about living off the land.  And those students?  They get worked to exhaustion, but do so entirely under the supervision and after the immediate example of Conway himself. 

As the title implies, Gilbert uses Conway’s story to ruminate about the loss of vitality in our urban lives, and when she waxed philosophical about the degradation of skills and independence in our society, I nodded enthusiastically the whole time.  I need to get a copy of this book to keep, and I’ll keep it next to my copy of Walden on the shelf. 

One thing made me sad about this otherwise masterful journey into the heart of our heartland, though.  Having read this after Eat, Pray, Love, I already know that Elizabeth Gilbert was going through massive depression episodes and a painful divorce around the time that she was writing The Last American Man.  As much as she opines on the healthy, cleansing powers of working with your hands in nature, and as much as she shows us that she worked alongside Conway quite a lot for many years, you’d think that her own life would have been better balanced emotionally.  And yet, if that were true, the impetus for and growth from the travels of Eat, Pray, Love never would have happened.  I’m not calling Gilbert a hypocrite–far from it!–but it made me sad to see that all of this wonderful stuff Gilbert was writing about living a pastoral life in the mountains and how it feeds the soul, just didn’t seem to be working for her, even as she was writing it.  I hope she’s happier now. 

Conway tells several people throughout the book that they can live just like he does, that they just need to go outside and do it.  I’m not going to do that–at least not just yet–but I do intend to let this message move me enough to get out in the natural world and work it with my bare hands much more often.  Conway’s joy is contagious, and I do sincerely hope you’ll consider basking in a little bit of this radiance, too.

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