January 16, 2013 in General Topics
What would make a young man turn from everything he knows, and set off to Alaska, only to die in the reaches of its tundra? Among the many questions John Krakauer asks over the course of his outstanding book, Into the Wild, this one gets the most attention. You won’t get that impression looking at the paperback’s cover, however. The cover is all about an unexpected death.
Christopher McCandless was a kid, a boy, a youth (as we are almost relentlessly reminded by the book) who seemed to have everything to live for. He graduated from Emory University, right here in Atlanta, and possessed a runner’s determination in virtually everything he attempted. McCandless was one of these rare people that has the “live” meter dialed all the way up to 11. He also felt a substantial measure of friction with his parents–particularly his father–and that’s where the trouble may have started.
Krakauer, an experienced journalist and an avid mountainclimber, details McCandless’ journey into the life of a wanderer with an almost forensic eye. Chris adopted the alias Alexander Supertramp. As Alex, he drifted around the country meeting a vast array of people, from all walks of life. And he made a profound impression on all of them.
But as important as the personal interactions are to the book’s substance, McCandless had an almost phobic stance toward the modern world. He seemed to be chasing something forever over the next hill. I’d call it wanderlust, but I don’t think that does it justice. Wanderlust doesn’t make someone walk into the Alaskan Wilderness with almost no supplies. This was obsession. Krakauer makes the point that young people often imagine a great duel against a forbidden landscape as something that can plug up a hole in one’s life. Expanding further on that subject, the author details his own experience climbing the Devil’s Thumb, in what proves to be one of the most gripping parts of the entire book.
Does Mr. Krakauer feel a certain kinship with his subject? Does he excuse Christopher’s almost heartless act of disappearing–though knowing that his parents will be worried sick? The answer to these questions seems to be “yes”, and he holds to that opinion even as he fleshes out McCandless’ final, heart-wrenching days, as the young man starves to death in the cabin of a remote bus-turned-shelter in the Alaskan wilderness.
I’m not so sure I could make the same leap. Self-discovery or not, Chris did undertake a personal voyage to the total disregard of his family, even his beloved sister. This act, in my opinion, crossed from simple independence to selfishness, and I can’t help but wonder if his dramatic efforts at avoiding his parents’ attempts to find him weren’t born out of some desire for a childlike revenge against a father he considered stifling. We’ll never really know.
What I do know is Into the Wild is the best non-fiction book I’ve ever read. It reads more like an adventure novel, like a survival epic bookending a travel diary. I’ve never read anything quite like it, and its images and inhabitants stayed with me for days. Perhaps it’s because I myself love the outdoors and try to find places well out of cell range when I camp.
More likely, it’s that this book is just that good.