Sunday, June 01, 2008

Book Review: "Into the Wild"

Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild (1996) is the intense story of the life and last days of Christopher McCandless, who - at age 24 - wandered into the Alaskan wilderness in the spring of 1992 and did not come back alive. His body was discovered four months later inside an abandoned bus: McCandless had starved to death. Krakauer wrote an article on McCandless for Outside magazine, which he later expanded into this book (which was, in turn, made into a movie last year).

Meticulously tracing McCandless on his peripatetic wanderings from the summer of 1990 through his death, Krakauer has written a remarkably thorough account of a wanderer's life. Combining interviews with those McCandless met and impacted during his travels around the United States (and they were many) with material drawn from McCandless' own writings and photographs, Krakauer provides a rich and detailed contextual background and examination of the young man's worldview and state of mind as he took up his final, fatal challenge.

The worldview and state of mind which would possess someone to take off for the Alaskan bush without adequate preparations are entirely alien to me (I usually carry an umbrella if there's even the slightest chance it will rain), so I found McCandless' journey(s) utterly bewildering. But Krakauer did not, and his similar experiences recounted here (as well as the additional stories of earlier "bush casualties" which are included) add much to the story as he tells it.

Krakauer explores the case thoroughly, examining the key questions of whether McCandless went into the bush intending to commit suicide (I agree with him that the available evidence suggests that McCandless intended to come out, but that his state of severe unpreparedness proved his ultimate downfall), and what it was that caused his final illness (swainsonine poisoning, he suggests, caused by eating moldy seedpods of wild potato). He also provides a gripping account of his visit to the site of McCandless' death.

I read this book during a bus ride across Massachusetts, and was surprised to overhear a conversation going on across the aisle which included a young man about to set off on a cross-country trip (by bus and foot) with little more than the clothes on his back and some gear in his backpack. He told the girl he was chatting up that he was going to use the nom de voyage Alex (the same as that chosen by Chris McCandless). Toward the end of the trip he noticed what I was reading and remarked on it, saying that he was modeling his journey on that of McCandless. "Just make sure yours has a different ending," I said. "Yes," he said, "I've got different goals than he had."

Haunting, fascinating, and beautifully-written. Recommended without reservation.