Dear readers, it’s a really big deal that I’ll admit to enjoying this book. I don’t usually like nonfiction. I find biographies awkward and survival stories a bit of a drag. Until a few days ago, I was quite adamant that I disliked Elizabeth Gilbert, because I think that Eat, Pray, Love is one of the most overrated books to ever grace the bestseller list. I gave up on that memoir and deemed it self-indulgent waffling. So it took a lot of persuasion, a free book, and a snowy day to convince me to sit down with The Last American Man.
Star Ratings for Nonfiction
Writing: **** (4 stars)
Narrative: **** (4 stars)
Interesting Subject: ***** (5 stars)
Objectivity and research: ***** (5 stars)
Overall: **** (4 stars)
Holy crapoli was I surprised. This is not the vague life story of a guy who tries to be extra-manly in everything he does. This isn’t a collection of ramblings about freedom and liberty, or bald eagles, or a gun-nut holed up in a shack somewhere (though there are plenty of guns in Eustace Conway’s life, a powerful sense of freedom, and a few eagles, too). The Last American Man is the biography of a man who, at seventeen years old, set off with little more than a teepee and a knife to escape from materialist society and a tense home life where his dad expected impossible perfection. He hiked the Appalachian trail, became almost entirely self-sufficient, lived with the wilderness, and decided that it was his calling to share this way of life with other people. Eustace Conway considers himself a “Man of Destiny,” and Elizabeth Gilbert sets about chronicling his pursuit of that destiny. He started out giving talks about nature at schools, inspiring young people to consider their role as part of the earth. After countless adventures; some tragedies; and several meals consisting of porcupine, he has nearly become the sort of legendary figure Transcendentalists and gentleman explorers wanted to be, but didn’t know how.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s biography of Eustace Conway is very personal, examining one man’s ideal of giving up on modern comforts to live in the wilderness, but also surprising. Halfway through the book, after I became nearly convinced that this guy had all the answers idea about mankind and nature (and the future, and life…) the narrative changed just subtly enough to show the other sides to Eustace’s story. The girlfriends who saw him as some fantasized ideal were, in turn, berated and discouraged for failing to meet his impossible standards. Beautiful scenes of Eustace teaching kids at his camp to imagine themselves as the forest floor were juxtaposed with the demoralizing fact that not everyone can truly learn to live at one with nature, contrary to what he believed at the beginning of his journey. Chapters of freedom during a record-breaking horseback adventure across the country, an adventure which might impress Cormac McCarthy, were exhilarating. But soon enough Gilbert reminds us that the modern world is no longer so amenable to earnest, determined, natural souls.
I loved reading about how Turtle Island, the nature preserve and farm Eustace Conway worked so hard to protect, was supposed to endure as a peaceful haven against industrial greed. And then, when legal fine-print and human reality began to tear down that dream several chapters later, I shared in a tiny piece of that heartbreak. While there’s no real plot to comment upon, this being a true story – and an unfinished one, at that – the book’s pacing was carefully constructed. She builds up a reader’s investment in parts of the narrative, and in the real subjects (who are so extraordinary they may as well be called “characters,”) so that the victories and challenges Eustace faces in his pursuit of destiny might affect us keenly.
The author has interviewed so many people in connection with her subject, and has spent a great deal of time with Eustace: sawing wood at his camp, talking in the woods, getting drunk, arguing. There are whole passages included from his extremely personal diaries, and while I felt that this intimacy seemed almost invasive, we get as well-rounded a portrait of the man and his beliefs as we could hope for. Gilbert has interviewed countless family members, acquaintances, enemies, and admirers of Eustace’s. It’s a level of personal investigation I can’t help but admire, especially because all that socialization with such strong personalities would have really stressed me out. (Clearly I should not become a biographer.) She also must have spent considerable time learning about frontiersmen from America’s colonization onward, because there are plenty of anecdotes showing how Eustace Conway is carrying on a tradition. That tradition is both one of returning to mankind’s roots and of pushing forward to some natural, pure horizon, and we’re left to decide for ourselves if Eustace will make it. Can we look past the fact that our hero has pushed so far away from the pressures of his childhood, only to be compared to his overbearing father once again? Is it enough that he has tried to live as a symbol of natural respect and self sufficiency, or do we need him to have ultimately succeeded in becoming a “Man of Destiny”? Does Eustace Conway owe us anything at all – owe us his belief that we can live as he does – the way he once claimed? Is he really the last American man?
This is an optimistic story, if not always an uplifting one. Despite the peaks and valleys and broken horse legs, I closed the book feeling a little comforted in the knowledge that this man – with his possibly-crazy vision for the world – has saved a few lives and opened countless eyes to the importance of loving the Earth instead of just living off it. I’m glad I read The Last American Man, and I’m willing to admit that it was foolish to judge Elizabeth Gilbert on only one book. This biography was riveting, touching, and yes, inspiring.