Archive for Sunday, October 20, 2002

Gilbert’s ‘Last American Man’ portrays complex person

October 20, 2002


It would be easy to portray Eustace Conway as simply a present-day Daniel Boone, a man who set out to become self-sufficient as a response to some dissatisfaction with modern society and all its conveniences.

After all, his home is a 1,000-acre plot of land in the Appalachian wilderness of North Carolina and he lives off the food he grows and the animals he catches, the skins of which he uses to make his clothes.

But Conway is a more complex individual than that, and in "The Last American Man," Elizabeth Gilbert a friend of Conway's has written a wonderfully full portrait of a man who thinks Bill Clinton "is an American political figure, but I'm not certain" while he uses a fax machine to get tax information and handle media requests for interviews.

"He's at the top of his game," Gilbert writes about Conway. "He even calls himself a Type-A Mountain Man, and, indeed, he has become a Man of Destiny in action, the World's Most Public Recluse, the CEO of the Woods.

"But there are cracks. And he can feel the wind blowing through them."

Conway has been a nature lover since he was a boy, Gilbert writes, and by the time he was 7 "he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree."

This love of the woods and a need to escape the domineering hand of a strict and ridiculing father send Conway out on his own soon after high school graduation.

Armed with only a tepee and a motorcycle, Conway lived in and around the mountains of his native South Carolina before eventually finding a companion with whom he embarked on a 2,000-mile hike through the Appalachian Mountains at age 19. The duo subsisted primarily on what they could hunt and gather along the way.

Later adventures included kayaking across Alaska; living with Mayan Indians in Guatemala to learn the ways of a primitive culture; and riding across the country on horseback, with his brother Judson and a family friend, in a record 103 days.

But, as Gilbert's writing unfolds, it becomes obvious that Conway is not a carefree wild man who lives by his own rules and suffers no worries because of it. Instead she reveals him to be a taskmaster, a man driven to push himself and those around him to always get the most out of their bodies and surroundings.

"His perfectionism didn't stop with himself," Gilbert writes.

This hard-driving attitude is, in many ways, reminiscent of the pressures applied on him by his father, a man whose love and approval Conway desperately seeks.

It is also a major factor in his inability, despite a myriad of girlfriends, to find a woman with whom he wants to spend the rest of his life. This is a huge vacancy in Conway's life as he approaches 40, an ironic void for this self-sufficient man.

"It is only in this one most delicate operation of intimate partnership where Eustace doesn't succeed. All his energies and all his talents become useless in the face of it," Gilbert writes.

Showing both sides of this singular man gives Gilbert's writing a humanity and a fairness that could be lost by focusing only on Conway's peculiarities.

Gilbert could have written an interesting book by showing how different Conway is, but she has written a better one because she's given a glimpse into his the similarities he shares with so many others.

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