Into the Wild is one of those books I’d always meant to get around to reading, and never did until now. I’ve never even seen Sean Penn’s acclaimed 2007 cinematic rendition of the adventures and untimely death of Christopher McCandless in the Alaskan wilderness, an incredible and tragic tale that’s already become inculcated into popular lore. For those of you as out-of-it as I was, the basic gist is this: Chris McCandless grew up in an affluent suburb of Washington, DC in an intact, quote-unquote normal family; graduated with honors from Emory University; and a couple months after his college graduation donated his law-school fund to charity, got rid of all his possessions, changed his name to Alexander Supertramp, and never spoke to his family again. For two years he hitchhiked around America, homeless, working at a grain factory in Carthage, South Dakota one month, at a McDonald’s in Bullhead City, Arizona the next. His ultimate goal was to embark upon an “Alaskan odyssey,” to go “into the wild” and live entirely off the land for an entire summer. He died of starvation on the Stampede Trail, near Fairbanks, at the age of 24. The probable cause of death was poisonous mold on the potato plants he’d come to rely on to supplement his diet of game and berries; the poison inhibits the body from turning food into energy, and starvation is almost inevitable.
Nobody really knows why McCandless so blithely abandoned a life that, frankly speaking, he was lucky to have and didn’t adequately appreciate. Krakauer speculates, albeit obliquely and quite fairly. His reporting leaves absolutely no stone uncovered (sometimes literally), and Krakauer’s fascination with his subject is palpable. McCandless left plenty of documentation of his travails, in the form of photos and diary entries, which bespeaks a hunger for an earthly legacy—a kind of immortal glory—that undermines his supposed commitment to the-insignificance-of-man-in-the-face-of-nature. He read the Russians avidly (Tolstoy, Gogol, Pasternak) and idolized Jack London, but truth be told, most of his musings on the emptiness of the material world and the glories of asceticism read like the typical bromidic, hollow ramblings of a self-absorbed and immature young man. Which, in his defense, he was. He wasn’t mentally ill, really; sure, he probably had a few screws loose, but above all, he was young. And that’s really the biggest tragedy: He died too young to outgrow his arrogance, his predilection for risk-taking and his invincibility syndrome. Krakauer seems to believe that if McCandless had made it out of Alaska alive, he would have eventually—even immediately—settled down and tried to build some semblance of stability, even if that life was separate from the one he’d left behind. McCandless wasn’t a sociopath. He was, in fact, very well-liked and even gregarious. But he was misguided.
Reading about McCandless in Into the Wild recalled, in a somewhat strange way, revisiting The Catcher in the Rye a few years ago. Like most teenagers, when I first met Holden Caulfield, I was enamored with him; I thought he got it, that he was able to so sublimely skewer privilege and pinpoint American bourgeois society for exactly the ridiculous construct it was because he was so much cleverer than everyone else. Predictably, though, when I reread the book as an adult, I found myself rolling my eyes more often than not and wanting to tell the brat to grow up. Much of Chris McCandless’s philosophizing can only be compared to Holden rambling about phonies: He’s right, to a degree, but the ingratitude, immaturity and ultimately sheltered nature of his supposedly all-encompassing theories on the purpose of life really come through and, after a while, it’s all you can concentrate on. (This is not even to mention McCandless’s selfishness that borders on obscenity: He disappears from his family’s life without a trace, inflicting on his parents the greatest fathomable pain of losing a child.)
I’m not claiming there’s only one right way to live, and I can sympathize with McCandless’s desire to disengage from the “conventional” life he’d been expected to lead. But his swing to the opposite end of the pendulum, I still maintain, had more to do with what he was running from than the higher plane of existence he claimed to be seeking—and, of course, with McCandless’s own delusions of grandeur. He wasn’t going to just join the rat race like everybody else; he was going to be the one to break free and live life as it was meant to be lived. It’s the oldest story in the book, and it usually never ends well. Granted, I’ve never really been into all that back-to-nature stuff; despite my father’s adulation of Emerson and Thoreau, and his best efforts to get me to love Jack London as a child, they never hooked me. Krakauer himself puts London’s impractical idealism into perspective: The author in fact spent only a few months in Alaska and died a “fatuous . . . obese . . . sedentary” drunk. (His death is generally considered a suicide, in fact.) In other words, “the wild” is alluring mostly in principle. In practice, nature is fierce and unforgiving, and it’s not there to catalyze personal development or self-discovery. It killed Chris McCandless in three months.
All that said, I couldn’t put the book down. Krakauer overdoes it a bit with the GRE words (the book is full of show-offy phrases like “Nor was McCandless endowed with a surfeit of common sense”), but Into the Wild is a veritable page turner (or, in the parlance of the Kindle era, a page-clicker). Despite my skepticism of McCandless from the get-go, the portrait of the cocky but ultimately confused young man is vivid, fair and fascinating, and your heart breaks at points knowing the end of his all-too-short life is creeping up on him. Krakauer also weaves in a couple chapters about his own near-death experience mountain-climbing in Alaska—evidence, he claims, that McCandless did not have a death wish, nor was he particularly stupid or way out of his depth. He was just unlucky. As Krakauer puts it: “Eighteen years after [his own adventure], I now recognize that I suffered from hubris, perhaps, and an appalling innocence, certainly; but I wasn’t suicidal. At that stage of my youth, death remained as abstract a concept as non-Euclidean geometry or marriage. I didn’t yet appreciate its terrible finality or the havoc it could wreak on those who’d entrusted the deceased with their hearts. I was stirred by the deep mystery of mortality. I couldn’t resist stealing up to the edge of doom and peering over the brink.” Krakauer is in a far better position than most of his readers will be to understand what really motivated McCandless, but even if (like me) you can’t relate to the book’s subject, you really want to learn about him. And in the end, mourn him.