Here’s a terrific scene from Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, The Last American Man: A young woman follows her boyfriend into the Appalachian Mountains to live in his teepee. One January afternoon he throws some squirrels onto their dirt floor and demands she turn the dead rodents into dinner. ”’Now, remember,’ says Donna today, thinking back on it. ‘This life was his dream, and I was following him and living in the teepee because I loved him. But I didn’t know how to make squirrel soup. I mean, I’m from Pittsburgh, right?”’
Who is this guy? He is Eustace Conway, who left behind a comfortable suburban home at the age of 17. Twenty years later, he calls himself a ”Type-A Mountain Man.” An ex-girlfriend (not Donna, who, incidentally, still loves him despite their soup-induced breakup) calls him a ”Primitive Pagan Savage.” Gilbert calls him a ”Man of Destiny in action, the World’s Most Public Recluse, the CEO of the Woods.” Conway was the extraordinary subject of her 1998 magazine profile. And his knotty life in the woods deserves the book-length expansion.
”He does not live in the woods because he is hiding from us,” assures Gilbert, ”or because he’s growing excellent weed, or because he’s storing guns for the imminent race war.” Conway traps animals, makes fire, and wears buckskin because he thinks it is the only real way to live. His home is a thousand acres of North Carolina land. And he isn’t content to just carve out his self-sufficient corner. He believes that with enough teaching and preaching, one by one, people will follow him into the forest. And Gilbert, who peppers the text with Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone asides and a smattering of frontier history, loves him for it.
She’s the first to admit that she’s no different from the man women who tiptoe into his teepee or the lost college students who seek apprenticeships or the excitable press who run profiles of the photogenic Conway. ”I too had that moment of thinking this was the first truly authentic man I’d ever met, the kind of person I’d traveled to Wyoming as a twenty-two-year-old to find (indeed, to become),” she writes.
But as every good journalist must do, she disentangles herself from her subject’s charismatic web. Gilbert, a chatty and familiar writer, just does so in front of her reader. (And every now and then one wants a little bit less of her on the page.) When Conway falls from his pioneer pedestal, and proves that the Last American Man is still a flawed one, the author can’t hide her dismay.
There’s one particularly telling moment of disillusionment when Gilbert discovers that Conway’s desire for 13 offspring was what put off another girlfriend (damn, that guy gets around). ”My exact question was: ‘Please tell me you didn’t really say that,”’ writes Gilbert of her disbelief. ”His response was, ‘One hundred years ago a woman wouldn’t have been scared by that ideal!’ Which was such a disappointing answer… Eustace Conway, as a true student of history and anthropology, should know better.”
If the worst Gilbert will ever outright say about Conway is that he can be disappointing, or mercurial, or overzealous, her marvelous reporting fleshes out his trickier sides. ”YOU GODDAMN STUPID CONCEITED A–HOLE,” raged one ex-girlfriend in a letter of goodbye. His only sister, a milder type, hopes he never has any of those 13 children because she fears he would be too domineering and obsessive. His brother, perhaps, says it best: ”Some mornings I wake up and I think, God, wouldn’t it be great to have a brother with all the skills and interests of Eustace, but who was humble too?”
There are so many reasons to read this book. Read it for the portrait of a man who isn’t divorced from the land below and the sky above. Read it to watch his youthful ambitions fade into tired gasps. Read it to see how Gilbert gets at her subject without ever stabbing him in the back. And then hope that Conway himself isn’t reading it and falling for his public self.
”He needs to do something that is private,” warns one of the Last American Man’s friends toward the end of the book. ”He’s postured himself in public for so many years…. Until he goes out in the world, all alone, and cuts away the ropes and publicity and ego and bulls— and does something truly heroic, he’s just blowing smoke up his own ass.”