Saturday, January 05, 2008

Book review: The Last American Man

Reading like a tall tale with a large amount of psychoanalysis thrown in, The Last American Man (2002) is a fascinating profile of Eustace Conway, a man who creates a back-to-nature life light-years away from modern American society. A present-day Davy Crockett, Conway's life is closer to that of a 19th-century Native American than to that of a person born into late 2oth-century suburban America. Smart, funny, and wise author Elizabeth Gilbert (who also wrote 2006's Eat, Pray, Love) paints a picture of a man who is so frighteningly accomplished the reader is sometimes left wondering if he's real--long-distance hikes with bare-bones materials, record-setting horse rides, encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world, and success in real estate. The details of his rugged lifestyle are often jaw-dropping and illustrate just how different today's world is from the world of our ancestors.

Gilbert chooses a mostly light, humorous touch for the material in The Last American Man rather than entering the dark intensity of survivalist books like Into the Wild. The author delves into how Conway fits into conceptions of American manhood and compares him favorably with past pioneer heroes such as Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. Throughout the book, Gilbert holds up Conway as an American icon, with many Americans saying they desire a life like his, but very few actually attaining any semblance of it. She also spends a good amount of time exploring Conway's trouble with relationships, finding some answers in his family background. Gilbert never hides the fact that she is writing this book about a friend, and I think her relationship with the subject adds to her ability to create this insightful portrait.

I enjoyed reading this book for what it says about America today, illustrating the conflict between our secret desires and reality. It allows the reader to visualize just what would happen if he or she dropped out of society and went to live in the woods, the way it sometimes seems tempting to do after a frustrating day of work. While Conway's extremism may be off-putting, I think most would agree that getting back to nature would do Americans a world of good. However, also implied in the book is that perhaps there is also something to be said for the "soft" relationship skills that have been free to develop along with modernization. Conway is a most deserving subject of a book, and Gilbert does a superb job of describing both his life and the cultural and psychological issues at play in it.

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