Random House, 1996, 224 pages
What would possess a gifted young man recently graduated from college to literally walk away from his life? Noted outdoor writer and mountaineer Jon Krakauer tackles that question in his reporting on Chris McCandless, whose emaciated body was found in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness in 1992.
Described by friends and relatives as smart, literate, compassionate, and funny, did McCandless simply read too much Thoreau and Jack London and lose sight of the dangers of heading into the wilderness alone? Krakauer, whose own adventures have taken him to the perilous heights of Everest, provides some answers by exploring the pull the outdoors, seductive yet often dangerous, has had on his own life.
Chris McCandless was a trust-fund kid whose Ivy League education had been paid for by his parents. He was also an angry young man who thought his parents were fucked up and the world is a great big stupid. So he left home, headed for the West Coast, went tooling around in California and Arizona until he drove his car into a wash in the Arizona desert, where it got caught in a flash flood. He abandoned it (the Arizona Highway Patrol found it worked great after a tow and a jump start and used it as an undercover drug interdiction vehicle for years afterward), went hitchhiking, and eventually made his way up to Alaska. He was a big fan of Jack London, Leo Tolstoy, and of course, Henry David Thoreau. He wanted to separate himself from civilization and dependency and money and just "live life." A boy against the world.
The world won.
McCandless ended up starving to death in an abandoned bus out in the Alaskan wilds, possibly after eating a poisonous plant he mistook for an edible tuber.
His tale is sad, especially as writer Jon Krakauer follows his trail and interviews his family and some of the people he met on the road. But to be honest, it's hard to work up much sympathy for the spoiled little shit.
Basically, he was pissed off at his parents. He had the usual daddy issues, a young man's conviction that his parents were stupid and hypocritical (exacerbated when he found out that his father had an ex-wife and a messy history he'd never known about, including another son), and a bunch of half-baked political notions. He took all these, a rifle, and a ten-pound bag of rice into Alaska.
"Alexander Supertramp," as he styled himself, could have survived his experience. He might have spent a rough season in the outback, come back with perhaps a slightly tempered edge and an appreciation for electricity and running water, and maybe written a book. Instead, a little bad luck and a lot of ignorance killed him.
Krakauer writes about as thorough a biography as you can get for a 22-year-old who did little and died young. McCandless was evidently bright, but he thought he was the shit. At many points along his journey, he made dumb-ass mistakes. Losing his car in the Arizona desert - which, incidentally, he drove right into a protected preserve with plenty of signage because he wanted to see the rare flowers - was neither the first nor the last. None of this dented his arrogance. People gave him advice, which he ignored. It's not surprising he died; it would have been slightly more surprising if he hadn't.
This was an interesting story, which Krakauer livens up with some of the other interesting and offbeat characters McCandless encountered, but as real-life protagonists go, Chris McCandless was not the most sympathetic.
Into the Wild (2007)
A young man gives up everything -- including his trust fund and ties to a seemingly stable family -- to lead a solitary life in the wild. Eschewing convention to trek across Alaska's harsh and unforgiving terrain, he resolves to live off the land.
I was kind of surprised that Sean Penn made a 2.5 hour movie out of such a short book. It's long on highway and landscape scenes and strumming guitars, but it's effective. It captures the adventure and pathos of McCandless's journey, and managed to make him a protagonist you kind of root for, while still portraying him as the clueless Special Snowflake he was. It is filmed like a biographical drama rather than a documentary, and it's actually a pretty good movie. It slightly dramatizes a few of the incidents mentioned in Krakauer's book, but mostly sticks to the real-life story.
"Survivor" without the bug-eating contests
I cannot help thinking that McCandless's family might think this is in poor taste. But if you really like Alaskan scenery and watching dumbasses get cold and hungry, this is actually pretty good, as reality shows go, since the Discovery Channel likes to look kinda sorta highbrow.
Verdict: Into the Wild is an interesting story, and I've enjoyed previous books by Jon Krakauer. Krakauer tries to paint Chris "Alexander Supertramp" McCandless in a sympathetic light without glamorizing his untimely but hardly unpredictable demise, but you can't help shaking your head at this poor dumb kid. Every young man goes through a period where he thinks he's a superhero and does some stupid shit. Some of them die. Chris McCandless found a slightly more adventurous way to do it.
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