The Austin Chronicle

Summer Reading

Words gone wild! The best and the breeziest for beating the heat in 2002

By Clay Smith, May 31, 2002, Books

In 1977 Eustace Conway was 17, a heady age to move out of his family's home, forsake civilization, and begin living off the land. He created a teepee, rubbed two sticks together to make fire, used a blowgun, and wore the skins of animals he had hunted. His mother was an "unrepentant tomboy," and his father had taken him to wander in the woods with "his wobbly toddler's head tilting so far back that he might have toppled over from the effort of looking up so hard at so many trees for such a long time." Novelist and journalist Elizabeth Gilbert's original profile of this charismatic, tormented wildman appeared in GQ, and her expanded analysis of him, The Last American Man (Viking, $24.95), is one of those rare examples of a magazine article becoming a notably wonderful and striking book. Conway, a successful version of Chris McCandless, the subject of Jon Krakauer's Into the Woods, is still living in the woods, except for occasional forays into civilization, where he tries to convince environmental groups and schoolchildren (in short, anyone who is willing to listen) that the salvation of this country's soul lies in nature. Gilbert pursues the Big Ideas here -- the modern malaise of deracination, the necessarily flawed pursuit of utopia -- but she is such a clear, thrilling, and original writer that cultural issues are as bracing in her adept hands as Conway's tips on the most effective way to skin a rabbit.

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