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Into the Wild - Jon Krakauer
Member Name: Charliewhippet
Into the Wild - Jon Krakauer
Date: 17/05/12, updated on 04/06/12 (88 review reads)
Advantages: It's an engaging book and worth reading if you're planning to wander off into the woods....
Disadvantages: I feel terrible, speaking ill of the dead. But McCandless is so irritating!
In 1992, 24 year old Chris McCandless walked into "the wilderness." Four months later, his emaciated body was discovered by hikers. This book is an attempt by Jon Krakauer at piecing together what happened, and what drove the young man to abandon his comfortable lifestyle and his family in the first place.
My first problem with the book is that I took an almost instant dislike to Chris McCandless. We are introduced to him via an account from Jim Gallien, an electrician who picked him up as a hitchhiker. Gallien notices that Chris is ill-equipped for the trip he is planning - with barely any food, crappy hiking boots and the idea that he could "climb a tree" to evade any wandering bears he might meet. From the get go he comes across as arrogant, naive and full of youthful swagger.
My second problem is that I just can't get on board with the basic message of the book: it glorifies stupidity and arrogance. Why not write a book about all the kids who felt the call of the wild and managed to plan a trip with their brains engaged, live off the land for a while and return to civilisation unscathed? Why pay homage to the kid who was so arrogant that he didn't bother to take a map? (His theory was that if he couldn't see the map, he must be in unchartered territory...) As an approach to creating a story, it's as irresponsible and ill-thought out as the TV programme Teen Mom ("What, you'll follow me around with the cameras, as if I were a glamorous member of the Kardashian family, or at the very least, dating Peter Andre? And all I have to do is get pregnant at 15? Count me in!")
Basically, the book is a paean to selfishness. Yes, Chris did well to live off his wits for as long as he did. Yes, it takes a certain something to walk off into the wilderness and enjoy it as a journey of self discovery. But the problem is, he essentially broke his parents' hearts by leaving, formed no real attachments to anybody, and died in a completely unnecessary way. (He starved while camping in a bus only 16 miles from where hundreds of tourists hike. So much for the great unknown.)
If he had just bothered to pack a map, he would have survived. His death was pointless, stupid, and vain. But Krakauer is so unashamedly on Chris's side that he becomes a suicide apologist. Having once been a gung ho mountaineer himself, Krakauer can identify with Chris and fully understands the magic that happens when one is pitting one's wits against the outdoors. He quotes an interviewee who had seen many men go missing in the wilderness over the years; "At least they tried to follow their dream. That's what's great about them. They tried. Not many do."
(To paraphrase then, the opinion he keeps stuffing down the reader's throat is: "Yes, Chris's death was pointless and he was a blithering idiot. But the point is, he DID WHAT HE WANTED TO DO! Stuff his family! That's what we should all be doing, yeah?"
The reason I dislike Chris so much is partly jealousy, of course. I want to drive to Alaska, and then hitchhike when my car breaks down. I want to hop on a freight train and have a series of cash jobs and kayak down rivers. I want to wake up in the morning knowing that all I have to do that day is walk, and eat berries, and find a good place to camp. (Actually, I did spend six months travelling around the states, but I'm not sure if greyhound buses really count as adventure.) It's clear that Chris was always a bold explorer type; at the age of 2, he got up in the middle of the night, found his way outside without waking his parents, and entered a house down the street to plunder a neighbour's candy drawer.
"Chris had so much natural talent," Walt (his father) continues, "but if you tried to coach him, to polish his skill, to bring out that final 10%, a wall went up. He resisted instruction of every kind." Hmm. This kind of attitude sort of goes against the advice you'll read in pretty much ANY self help book, doesn't it? But then, teenage boys aren't generally known for their humility and willingness to learn.
The descriptions of Chris which are apparently supposed to make him sound like a free spirit or an intellectual strike me as being his more irritating traits. For instance, a fellow wanderer describes him thus; "He was playful, like a little kid. I had puppies, and he was always putting them under laundry baskets to watch them bounce around and yelp." Hmm. That's not very nice. Then the lady whose son brought Chris home as a guest after employing him; "There was something fascinating about him... Alex struck me as much older than 24. Everything I said, he'd demand to know more about what I meant, about why I thought this way or that." Fascinating? Sounds pretty tedious to me.
He also proves my long held view that you can never trust a man who gives himself a nickname. Chris adopts the moniker "Alexander Supertramp" and writes a diary about himself in the third person. "Alex looks quickly around for any sign of trouble, but his entry of Mexico is either unnoticed or ignored. Alex is jubilant!"
Krakauer views wanderers as being admirably brave and iconoclastic but also points out that Chris was evading the messy intimacy of relationships - slipping away from even the most casual acquaintances on the road. One was Ron Franz, a man who prays that God will keep an eye on Alex; When he hears the news of the young man's untimely death, "I renounced the Lord. I withdrew my church membership and became an atheist." Which seems a tad unfair to God, when Chris's death was a result of his own choices. Krauker quotes Edward Whimper in his book Scrambles among the alps. "But remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime."
Summary: Give it a try. Who knows, you might actually LIKE the guy.
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