Rating: ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date Read: May 16 to 19, 2015
Read Count: 1
Recommended by: book club’s choice
Recommended for: people who liked the movie?
On the Road meets Walden (the Civil Disobedience edition), but for Generation X, and with a tragic ending.
Which makes this a hard book to rate because, objectively and overall, it’s well written and an interesting read. Jon Krakauer did a lot of research and really delved into Christopher’s McCandless’ past to show what led him to abandon his life for the wilderness of Alaska.
This isn’t so much a review, as it’s a jumble of thoughts and reactions. Here’s a review of just the book.
For me personally though, the subject matter of Into the Wild is…difficult. McCandless’ story is almost exactly what I hate about people who waste their lives. And the fact that he did it willingly but thought he was on a mission or had a higher call was just…ridiculous. As I said in my review of Cheryl Strayed’s story, I can’t stand naive city people who go into the wilderness unprepared, and I absolutely hate the glorification of these people and their journeys. I don’t understand what motivates them to put their lives at risk and I don’t understand why that would bring them closer to whatever spiritual entity they believe watching over them. As an aside, if such a thing exists, it doesn’t care about you, not specifically, but these people believe otherwise, and that’s just absurd, arrogant, and ridiculous. Come on, the universe doesn’t give a fuck about you. (By no means is that a plug for that book. Try Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything instead.)
As the description on the book cover says, McCandless came from a well-to-do family and had a trust fund to fall back on should he fall on hard times, but he gave the money away and went off the grid. What gets to me most about this story is that the time was early 90s and he had just graduated from Emory. He could have done a lot of good with his life and education, instead of wasting both. The opportunities open to someone like him at a time like that were plentiful, but instead he chose to follow Jack Kerouac and went on the road for awhile, and then followed Thoreau and headed out into the wilderness with minimal supplies and no basic survival training. This story could have only ended in death. That is the reality of being ill-prepared in the wilderness. If McCandless had survived, it would have been nothing short of a miracle, and it would have certainly been due to someone–a park ranger, hiker, or hunter–coming to his rescue. But no one did, and so he died alone in an abandoned bus.
In many ways this is how I imagined Cheryl Strayed’s story would’ve ended had she not had the fortune of running into kindhearted experienced hikers along the Pacific Crest Trail. Without their help and expertise, she could have easily ended up like McCandless, as would a lot of people.
I just finished Into the Wild about an hour ago, which is too soon to start a review, but I can’t help wondering about Jon Krakauer’s motivation for writing this book. He’d originally wrote about McCandless in an article and later on decided to expand on the topic and turn it into a book. Why? Why publicize and glorify McCandless even more? Why turn him into a “cult hero”?
“It is easy, when you are young, to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve, to assume that if you want something badly enough , it is your God-given right to have it […] I was a raw youth who mistook passion for insight and acted according to an obscure, gap-ridden logic. I thought climbing the Devils Thumb would fix all that was wrong with my life. In the end, of course, it changed almost nothing. But I came to appreciate that mountains make poor receptacles for dreams. And I lived to tell my tale.”
Oh, I see. But if that’s all there is to it, then it’s pretty weak.
To Krakauer’s credit though, he did give McCandless’ family a space where they were able to speak of their grief and bewilderment. But that part, which I think is the most important and well written part of the book, is overshadowed by his sensationalizing McCandless’ “adventures” and featuring long excerpts from McCandless’ journal entries in which he recorded his “profound” observations. Things such as:
“I’m going to paraphrase Thoreau here […] rather than love, than money, than faith, than fame, than fairness… give me truth. ”
“We like companionship, see, but we can’t stand to be around people for very long. So we go get ourselves lost, come back for a while, then get the hell out again.”
“You are wrong if you think Joy emanates only or principally from human relationships. God has placed it all around us. It is in everything and anything we might experience. We just have to have the courage to turn against our habitual lifestyle and engage in unconventional living.”
“It is true that I miss intelligent companionship, but there are so few with whom I can share the things that mean so much to me that I have learned to contain myself. It is enough that I am surrounded with beauty…”
How very Thoreau, for the modern era.
All of it seems naive and childish to me, like a temper tantrum but with literary quotes and references thrown in sporadically. And try as I might, I just couldn’t and still can’t take this book or its subject matter seriously. If it hadn’t been a book club’s choice, I would have abandoned it right around the part where McCandless abandoned his Datsun on the side of a road. The writing was good but overindulgent at times, and I already knew how the story ended, so there wasn’t much to motivate me to finish reading but I did for the book club. We rarely agree on anything during our discussions, but for this book, we all feel the same way about what McCandless did.
It comes as no surprise that this book turned Christopher McCandless into a cult hero. Quite a few people have used it to justify their own “glorious” adventure into the wilderness, which this article describes in some detail. But local Alaskans don’t care for it when these people make their “McCandless pilgrimage” every summer, and park rangers, this one in particular, especially don’t like it.
As a sort of rebuttal and companion to Into the Wild, McCandless’ sister Carine wrote a memoir about that time called The Wild Truth.