Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

There’s a difference between a true story and a work of fiction, and I feel like I have to acknowledge that difference before I can begin explaining my reactions to Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. 

This book was not what I expected it to be. Well, I suppose I should say, I didn’t know what to expect when I picked it up a few weeks ago, at the urging of two good friends. I don’t like to pass up book recommendations. Sometimes it takes me a while to get around to reading them, but I almost always do.
Into the Wild is a commentary/reflection/discussion on the story of Chris McCandless, a 21-year-old rich kid from the Washington DC area, who, upon graduating from Emory University, donated his trust fund, burned his money, hit the road, and never returned. He was, to say the least, an interesting character. To make things even more interesting, Krakauer’s commentary and voice are striking and intelligent. He does McCandless justice in his retelling of the two years “Alexander Supertramp” (the name Chris fashioned for himself) wandered the United States. He’s especially compelling throughout the section where he attempts to recreate Alex’s last days in the Alaskan bush, where he would succumb to starvation and die alone.
Reading this book was a complicated endeavor. On the one hand, I had a hard time sympathizing with McCandless. He comes across, in my opinion, as a selfish, self-obsessed rich-kid who doesn’t know how good he’s got it, and is incredibly ungrateful to the two people who raised him. This passage, taken from a letter he wrote to his sister, sums this up:

I can’t believe they’d try and buy me a car, or that they think I’d actually let them pay for my law school if I was going to go…. I’ve told them a million times that I have the best car in the world, a car that has spanned the continent from Miami to Alaska, a car that has in all those thousands of miles not given me a single problem, a car that I will never trade in, a car that I am very strongly attached to — yet they they ignore what I say and think I’d actually accept a new car from them! I’m going to have to be real careful not to accept any gifts from them in the future because they will think they have bought my respect.

Spoken like someone who has always had things he needed, I found this entire passage hard to swallow. From the information provided throughout the book, Chris’ parents seem reasonable, hard-working, loving parents. I have a hard time liking a person who abandons those who love him for two years without a single word; it seems a supremely selfish move.

And his faults don’t stop there. McCandless was stubborn, strong-willed, arrogant and overconfident of his own abilities, and rash. His ideals are contradictory. He writes about himself in the third person. In short, he’s just some kid who thinks too highly of himself for his own good.

Despite these things, I couldn’t help but agree with Krakauer when he says that at least McCandless followed his dream. He may have entered the Alaska bush woefully unprepared, but he survived four months, and it was chance alone that he lost his life instead of emerging in early fall, triumphant. And it’s true, too, what Krakauer writes about youth…

“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.” 

Yes, he was overconfident and too stubborn for his own good, but the kid had the guts required to live the way he felt he needed to live, and to be happy doing it. There is something appealing about the idea of wandering the world, hopping freight trains, camping at hot springs, paddling canoes down to Mexico and back, alone and content with nature. It’s not a viable option for most of us, but McCandless, regardless of how you feel about him, made it work. But in the end the toll came, and he caused a lot of suffering to the number of people who cared about him, of which there were many.

It’s easy to understand why the story of Chris McCandless has captured so many rapt readers. There is some part in us all, I think, that wants/yearns/needs to be free.

Rating: 7/10

Overall Reaction: “Um, Alexander Supertramp? Really? Of all the names ever, that’s what he went with?”

Up Next Week: One More Thing by B. J. Novak

See you soon, hopefully on time this week.


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