Sunday, January 20, 2008
Into the Wild
I just finished Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer's telling of the story of Chris McCandless, a young man from a well-to-do family in Virgina who graduated from college, donated $24,000 savings fund to charity, burned his wallet and wandered out into the American West. He starts out as an idealistic young man, full of the innocent zeal that only a life of privilege and the abandon of youth can foster; a steady diet of Henry David Thoreau, Jack London and an assortment of Russian authors feeds his desire to seek raw adventure. Four months after trekking into the Alaskan wilderness, his body was found decomposing in a bus.
Krakauer does a great job of piecing together the events of McCandless's life and untimely death. It is a well-researched, well-written, brilliant piece of story writing. The problem I had with the book was not in the telling of the story, but the subject himself. I started out really wanting to read about this young man who set out to travel the west in search of adventure; I thought he would be interesting, his adventures would be arresting. I found, instead, a kid who had too much, took it all for granted, and pissed on just about everyone around him, especially those closest to him. When he left home, he never looked back, never told his family where he was or that he was okay, and didn't even communicate with friends. I came to really dislike Chris McCandless.
As he traveled, he came upon person after person who befriended him, remembered him for the bright young man he was, and for his fervor for adventure. Time after time, he would approach intimacy with these people, then set out on the road again to avoid that next step of actually sharing his life with them, of allowing them close to the fortress of his heart, his soul. When he departed for Alaska, though, something changed for him, and also for me as I read his story. It's hard to put a finger on it, really, but it was like he began to be more introspective, to contemplate things. He wrote a couple of postcards to people he had met on the road, those people he had approached intimacy with. I think maybe this is the true heart of McCandless's adventure. It was not the obvious walk in the woods, but the adventure of a man who begins, if too late, to regard himself in relation to others, and with the understanding that these relationships have power and responsibility. It is the understanding that the most meaningful part of an adventure is not in bravely facing nature, but in facing ourselves.
Through a series of mishaps and blunders, Chris McCandless dies in an abandoned bus in Alaska, alone. This is not, perhaps, surprising when one contemplates the harshness of living in Alaska, the thin line one has to walk to forage and hunt for food daily. The surprise is really not that he died, but that he survived so long on his wits, instincts and raw determination. I came to admire and respect him. Further, there was evidence that McCandless himself was on his way toward reconciliation with some of the people around him, noting in one of his journal entries that happiness is only true when it can be shared with someone else. This NEVER would have occurred to him before his tenure in Alaska, and the solitude seems to have triggered a stirring within his soul to get back in touch with others.
Krakauer's book is a brilliantly written epitaph to the brief, complex life of Chris McCandless. He doesn't shy away from McCandless's obvious shortcomings, but does a masterful job of trailing and retelling the story of McCandless's life and death. Read it.