“I now walk into the wild”: the infuriating, mystifying, ultimately harrowing story of Chris McCandless

May 31, 2008 at 10:37 pm (Book review, books) ()

I just finished listening to Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. Although the book was published in 1996, the story is back in the news because of last year’s film by Sean Penn. I wanted to read the book before seeing the movie.

The audiobook consists of six discs, and I almost gave up after the first one. I was finding the company of an arrogant, self-absorbed, monumentally selfish young man well nigh unendurable. I stayed with it and I’m glad that I did, although I found it a profoundly disturbing story.

Chris McCandless’s odyssey across the West began immediately after his graduation from Emory University. He fetched up variously in the tiny town of Carthage, South Dakota, where he worked at a grain elevator, in the California desert, in Bullhead City, Arizona, where he worked in a MacDonald’s, and in several other out-of-the-way places before heading north to Alaska.

And the purpose of all this wandering? Well, there seem to have been several purposes, none of them very clearly articulated. One was certainly to slough off the trappings of the upper middle class existence into which Chris McCandless was born. The child of Walt and Billie McCandless, he was raised in Annandale, Virginia, a suburb of Washington DC. His father was an aerospace engineer of considerable eminence, having among other things designed advanced radar systems for the space shuttle. Chris had a younger sister Carine and six older step siblings from Walt’s previous marriage. (Annandale is about fifty miles southwest of where I’m sitting at the moment. I lived there for a year in the late 1960’s. It is now part of a suburban agglomeration devoid of any distinguishing features and choking on its traffic.)

From what I read in this book, the McCandlesses did not experience extraordinary friction within the family unit while Chris was growing up. But he was a complicated person, a restless, discontented soul who often seemed at odds with his environment. His relationship with Walt was somewhat touchy. I read somewhere that all boys, as they grow into men, face a reckoning with their fathers. Chris’s way of dealing with this reckoning was to flee from it, as far as he could, as soon as he could.

In fact, he vanished from the lives of all of his family members. At the time of his death, they hadn’t had word of him for several years, despite having at one point hired a private investigator to look for him. It is this willful act of disappearance that I found enraging. Chris claimed to be close to Carine, yet he froze her out of his life along with his parents, supposedly because he feared that if he contacted her, she would in turn tell their parents something that might reveal his whereabouts.

As Krakauer describes the scene, Carine was utterly desolated when she learned of her brother’s death. Chris’s parents were likewise crushed. I have to admit, I was a bit surprised by the intensity of their grief, especially where Carine was concerned. Family is family, I know, but I thought that at least one of them would have hardened his or her heart against this young narcissist who had so perversely hardened his against them.

(I am reminded of the novel The Tinderbox, in which a family man whose daughter is a runaway never stops loving her and hoping to find her; meanwhile, the mother’s heart has turned to stone where her errant daughter is concerned.)

Into the Wild is not just about Chris McCandless and his ill-fated Alaskan adventure. Krakauer also relates stories of other men whose lives followed a similar trajectory. These were actually fascinating tales. The one I particularly enjoyed was about Everett Reuss (pronounced “Royce”) whose solo traversal of the southwestern deserts culminated in his disappearance, in 1934. The last trace of him was found in Davis Gulch, a canyon of the Escalante in Utah, where he had made camp with his two burros. After several months had elapsed, a search party found the burros grazing placidly at the bottom of Davis Gulch. Of the twenty-year-old Ruess there was no sign, and never has been, up until this day.

When I first visited the California desert, I had already heard of Reuss as a result of my reading about the history of the American West. I’ve always wanted to know more about his brief life and was pleased to encounter him in Krakauer’s narrative.

Many are the speculations – some plausible, some farfetched – concerning the ultimate fate of Everett Ruess. On the other hand, we know what happened to Chris McCandless. In his case, the question is not what, but why. Jon Krakauer does not attempt to formulate a conclusive answer to this question; he presents the facts to the extent that they are known and leaves the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. But it would not be quite accurate to say that Krakauer has no particular attitude toward his subject. This is from the Author’s Note that prefaces the book:

I won’t claim to be an impartial biographer. McCandless’s strange tale struck a personal note that made a disapssionate rendering of the tragedy impossible. Through most of the book, I have tried–and largely succeeded, I think–to minimize my authorial presence. But let the reader be warned: I interrupt McCandless’s story with fragments of a narrative drawn from my own youth. I do so in the hope that my experiences will throw some oblique light on the enigma of Chris McCandless.

( I personally found the narrative of Krakauer’s harrowing mountain climbing experience interesting but over long and therefore unnecessarily intrusive.)

In my estimation, Jon Krakauer seems somewhat in awe of Chris McCandless, believing, apparently, that the young man was in some way preternaturally gifted. Accordingly, Krakauer is bewildered, even hurt, by the vituperation heaped on McCandless in response to his story. The book Into the Wild grew out of an article Krakauer wrote for Outside Magazine: “The article…generated a large volume of mail, and not a few of the letters heaped opprobrium on McCandless–and on me, as well, the author of the story, for glorifying what some thought was a foolish, pointless death.” He goes on to quote passages from this correspondence. I’m no expert on surviving in the wilderness; still, I couldn’t help but agree with some of what was said:

‘Why would anyone intending to “live off the land for a few months” forget Boy Scout rule number one: Be Prepared? Why would any son cause his parents and family such permanent and perplexing pain?’

After I’d finished the recorded book, I got the print version out of the library. Krakauer places many wonderful, thought-provoking passages at the beginning of each chapter. Some were from the works of well known authors such as Thoreau, Jack London, and Wallace Stegner; others were by wanderer/explorers with whom I was unfamiliar, like Edward Whymper (Scrambles Amongst the Alps) and John Menlove Edwards (“Letter from a Man”). I was hoping to find a bibliography but there was none; an unfortunate omission, IMHO.

By the end of July 1992, ill and weakened by lack of food, Chris McCandless knew he faced death alone in the Alaskan wild, sheltered only by the derelict shell of Fairbanks Bus 142. Eventually he crawled into the sleeping bag his mother had made for him, and there breathed his last: “He probably died on August 18, 112 days after he’d walked into the wild, 19 days before six Alaskans would happen across the bus and discover his body inside.” He was 24 years old.

It is impossible to read the book’s concluding chapter and not feel overwhelmed by sadness. In the epilogue, Krakauer tells how he accompanied Billie and Walt McCandless to the scene of their son’s death. They placed a memorial plaque just inside the door of a bus; they also left emergency provisions under the bed at the rear of the vehicle.

I’m pondering the possibility of a post entitled “Books That Haunt Me – or that I think will haunt me.” Into the Wild will be near the top of the list.

************************************************

Here are two interesting and provocative articles about Chris McCandless: “Into the Wild: The False Being Within” by Craig Medred in Far North Science; and “The Cult of Chris McCandless” by Matthew Power in Men’s Journal. The latter piece also offers some intriguing observations concerning the film, which I still have not seen. I guess I’m a bit afraid of it, at this point…

12 Comments

  1. Into the Wild - the film « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] 16, 2008 at 10:38 am (Film and television, books) (Chris McCandless) Last month I wrote about the book Into the Wild. We finally had a chance to see the film last night, and I feel like my heart got broken all over […]

  2. Rafael De la Vara said,

    this was a hit to birth and death how its supose to be something changed
    i saw this as part of my life at the time when i need it

    my name is rapanui.

    ? you

  3. Tina said,

    I just saw this movie and I was overwhelmed by this film. I starting crying a little throughout, like when the older gentleman asked if he could adopt Chris, ubt Chris walked away without an answer. By then end of the movie I was sobbing and had to leave the room due to my embarrassment of emotion. I have yet to read the book, but plan on getting it soon. Even though he did several extremely selfish things, I could also understand a lot of his reasoning. I belive that he had several problems in dealing with his feelings, thoughts, and reality as it was. Still, there was no excuse to cause such anguish to his family. This is a tragic tale if ever there has been, but I believe he was not a bad person, yet a free spirit with a good heart and scared to deal with reality.

  4. techita said,

    Thank you for your post. Thank you for your insight.

    I think there are more people in this world like Chris than we realize. There are many restless souls who do not understand materialism, greed, the drudgery of life, to me these are really sensitive people who don’t feel happy with what the world has become.

    There is a balance between the material world and the natural world, but there are so many contradictions between both that its understandable why some find life to be extremely conflicting,

    Estercita Aldinger

  5. stuart derouen said,

    I find it very disturbing that some of you misinterpret the film and story the way you have. It amazes me that you are working against everything he worked for in doing what he did. There are many people in this world that hate what society has become you are very correct, and i am one of them. Everything is based around materialism and social ranking. It makes me sick that we are born into a lifestyle that we have to live in and have no choice as to change it because there are to many people that just let life pass them by not worrying about making a change. I guess there are a certain few gifted people in this world who think on a different level than most people and have to ability to realize that this isn’t the way God intended things to be. And if you tell me there is no God, then your just blind to think that there is NO higher power out there somewhere to make this world the intricate place it is. I will leave on the note that i applaud Chris for his rebellion. He was a grown man and had every right and choice to go out and do what he did.

  6. Required said,

    Well said Stuart.

    you people are going to ask alex to wear his socks until the day you die

  7. The Tinderbox by Jo Bannister: a book discussion… « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] leaving home and rejecting their families, I brought up the true story of Chris McCandless. In Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, McCandless becomes a real, tangible person, even while his motives – particularly his […]

  8. Haley said,

    I read this book last week and saw the film this weekend, and I was incredibly haunted as well by Chris’ story.

    I found your review very insightful. Thanks. I agree with you, definitely, about Krakauer’s own personal story–those 2 chapters describing his mountain climb frustrated me a little. I kept wanting to get back to Chris’ story, as well as those of the other adventurers.

    I can’t presume to fully understand Chris or those like him, but I think Krakauer’s did a fantastic job of relating his story.

  9. Claudius said,

    Chris is not the only one who is arrogant.

  10. vinny said,

    Chris is an inspiration to me becuase he was gifted enough to have so much going for him but he saw beyond that he saw how over rated life and civilization has become making money gettin an education a job its all bullshit if you ask me we were put on this earth to live and if your not living the way chris and others lived their life your not living your being a mindless robot conforming to society and its dumbass rules everything has rules life revolves around rules the fucking bible is just a rulebook I say going out into the wild with bare materials is the happiest and true way someone could live I am jealous of christopher becuase he lived a happy life and I’m surrounded by bullshit and everyone who calls him stupid or anything but what he is which was an extrordinary man, you people are the stupid ones your the ones who aren’t living he may have died young but he died a happy man you all may still be living but if you say your happy living life being a conformist to bullshit rules your a damn liar this isn’t how life is suppose to be chris saw that and chris persude real happiness he found it and died with a smile may his soul rest in peace he is my hero.

  11. smcunn said,

    Your analysis was very interesting. However, I agree with stuart derouen. Your view is from the very world in which he was attempting to escape; it is therefore completely logical that you cannot understand his perspective. Life has become too trapped, too trivial. We have devolved so much from the raw existence to which we were naturally entitled.

    I am not, however, suggesting we all abandon our families. I personally cannot agree with Chris’ choice to “divorce” his parents or ignore his sister (as a side note, though, I did notice you left out the secret affair of Chris’ father. That clearly played a large role in the way their relationship ended). However, Chris’ family, like most of us, was stuck in the traditional mode of living. Chris could not seek a “raw” life within the confines of the society his family was a part of.

    He is human; of course you will find an imperfection to criticize. However, I think there is much about Chris that is very respectable. In a way, his mentality reflected that of the famous social theorist, John Stuart Mill. In his essays, Mill encouraged the exploration of life, by considering all types of thinking, and by breaking the traditional rules of society and just trying other ways of living. Although this concept could easily be considered irresponsible, it is really anything but. By trying all types of life, all types of thinking and all types of exploration, you are assisting in the perpetual experiment of humanity: the experiment of living.

    Chris was doing many things, some of which could be considered irrational, inconsiderate and even immoral. However, what I find most admirable about his mentality was the fact that he really tried things. He explored life. He managed to venture beyond the feeble boundaries of our materialistic society and live out his ideals.

    If you must criticize him, it only seems fair that you consider this side of him as well.

  12. Andreas Moser said,

    Chris McCandless may have had a short life, but he certainly had a fulfilled one: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2011/03/26/into-the-wild/

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