Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Review of INTO THE WILD/Jon Krakauer

When I read Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, as I have twice now, I find myself criticizing the subject rather than the writer. The book is the story of Chris McCandless, a twenty-four year old man from a well-to-do family who hitchhiked to Alaska to live in the bush. He died there, leaving behind a family he hadn't spoken to in more than two years and bewildered friends and acquaintances he met along his travels.

The book chronicles his approximately two-year hike across the United States. He hitchhiked, tented, slept in the desert, and somehow settled on the idea that a summer in the Alaska bush would—if not change it—give his life a deeper meaning. In his mind, he was following the path of the writers he loved, most notably Jack London. But he also emulated Tolstoy in his lofty ideals: McCandless was one who seemed to believe, as his father put it, “that you should own nothing but what you can carry on your back at a dead run.” Chris reveled in scrounging for the next meal.

To me, as someone who has been poor and will be poor for the foreseeable future, McCandless's endless romanticization of the hobo lifestyle smacked of unbelievable self-absorption and hypocrisy. Here was the son of a man who had top-secret security clearance and a mother who worked alongside her husband to create a successful business. He had excelled academically all through school and could have the job of his choice or create his own business fairly easily. Only someone as well-to-do with such an easy path paved before him could believe he was a better person than the “plastic people” with whom he was forced to share breathing space (such as the people with whom he briefly worked at McDonald's—many who were not financially much above poverty) by hoboing around the country.

But perhaps I am being harsh; McCandless was young and no less hypocritical than I was at his age. And Krakauer, by telling his own story of his relationship with his father, which led to his harrowing climb of Alaska's Devil's Thumb, brings the reader to a more compassionate view of McCandless: he was young and brash and ill-prepared and perhaps even foolish, but he was not stupid, and his death was the result not of his dramatically heeding a “call of the wild,” but of two small errors that turned out to be pivotal and irreversible.

At any rate, Krakauer is a fine, fine writer, and he tells McCandless's story as only a young man who had a similar relationship with his father as Chris did to his can. Yet in the book he is gentle with Chris's parents, writing about them as non-judgmentally as he does about Chris. It's clear that the wisdom he came to in his own life somewhere along the line parallels that of Chris's, only there's a point where Chris's line stops and Krakauer's keeps going. Krakauer was lucky to have survived his own brush with death and not only live to tell the tale, but forgive his father—something McCandless will now never have the opportunity to do.

Also found at The Book Book.


Old Kitty said...

Oh the follies of youth!!! You really are at that age where you think it's a do or die situation - my goodness this brings me back to how I was when I was young and all was black and white.

Now I'm glad for the grey.

I so wanted to see the film a couple of years back but it sort of came and went! Maybe I should read the book instead!

Thanks for the review and info.

Take care

stacy said...

Hi Kitty, I saw the film and it was pretty close to the book, and I'd have to say the performances were stellar (seriously, is William Hurt EVER bad?). The book was also very good. It's a travesty McCandless never came to better wisdom.

But I do think the book is a bit better at fleshing out the reasons why McCandless was the way he was, and Krakauer's account of his own peak into the abyss of death is a must-read.

fairyhedgehog said...

I think Kitty has summed it up. I'd hate to be judged on how I was when I was young!

sylvia said...

This sounds fascinating. I've read Into Thin Air and was impressed with the care that Krakauer gave to a difficult account with real people on the line. I will add this one to my wishlist.

stacy said...

Hi FH, I hear you and feel you. It pains me that Chandless never had a chance to outgrow his youth, and Krakauer did an amazing job with the subject matter. He really, as Sylvia said he did with INTO THIN AIR, gave the subject matter a great deal of care. I think Krakauer understands Chandless better than I ever will. Odd that the reason I judged him is because of what I perceived as his being judgmental of others. I know he was a young man trying to experience life on his own terms. I think it's a shame what should have been minor mistakes turned out to be irreversible. There but for the grace of God go I, you know?

stacy said...

Sylvia, he takes no less care in INTO THE WILD. He tells his own "there but for the grace of God go I" stories, and that juxtaposition really helpe me "get" Chandless (though I have to admit I was more judgmental). But that's the beauty of Krakauer's writing. I think I would have been a lot more judgmental if Krakauer had been any less caring about his subject.

I don't think I'm giving you any spoilers in saying I still can't get my head around Chandless not speaking to his family for two years, though.