I picked up this book because I had seen the movie a few years back. It was a good movie. But the book, in addition to being far better, is a completely different experience altogether.
This is a non-fiction account of a dangerously idealistic young man by the name of Christopher McCandless who goes out into the wild (thus the title) in order to find/redefine himself. He has an intense love affair with nature while traveling across the country and forms the goal of proving himself by living off the land in the wilds of Alaska. Like so many others on similar life-altering quests his ultimately proves fatal and despite getting a decent look at the person in the movie I was ultimately left feeling the same emotions most of the individuals who first read of the events felt: sadness and anger.
It was originally published in Outside magazine and the author, Jon Krakauer, received a backlash of angry letters and missives expressing outrage at the young boy's carelessness in taking on such a daunting outing without any former training or experience. People called him stupid, naive and woefully misguided for thinking he could survive and expressed sentiments akin to "good riddance" as if he were a candidate for a Darwin Award.
While I wasn't quite as angry as the readers of the article I was ultimately dismissive at the end of the movie. I think it was a defense mechanism protecting me from feeling too much sadness. I had no such defenses to protect me from this book and the reason for that is because of the way Krakauer peels away the layers of the story.
The first few chapters are rather straightforward and seem to be the primary source material for the movie. Krakauer starts off with accounts from individuals who met the young man throughout his travels- everyone from those who picked him up while he was hitchhiking across country to those he formed rather close relationships with while working spare jobs or staying put at different locals for a while. He included all the letters, postcards and other missives McCandless exchanged with these folks and every page of it is deeply personal, almost intrusively so. It's one of the things that makes the book so disarming.
But more than that, it's clear that these people- each and every one of them- was captivated by this young man. McCandless had a bigger impact on their lives during the brief time they shared than so many relationships we take for granted. Reading the things these people had to say about him, the relationships they had with him, the deep hole which he filled and then left empty makes one like the protagonist. Perhaps that's why the first response is anger when remembering how the story ends.
This is one of many areas in which Krakauer's writing itself shines. Each one of these individuals has enough details to make them real. He doesn't write paragraphs describing any of them, he gives you a snapshot of his meetings with them. An example would explain this better than I can. In describing his interaction with an elderly gentleman who became particularly fond of McCandless he writes:
"God, he was a smart kid," the old man rasps in a barely audible voice. He directs his gaze at a patch of sand between his feet as he makes this declaration; then he stops talking. Bending swiftly from the waist, he wipes some imaginary dirt from his pant leg. His ancient joints crack loudly in the awkward silence."
Krakauer then goes on to discuss why McCandless did what he did, and it's here that the similarities between the book and the movie end. The movie follows a linear timeline of McCandless beginning with his graduation from college and departure out west and following him to his death in the Alaskan wilderness. His journal entries are the main anchor for the storyline and it gives the viewer a feeling like McCandless himself is narrating. The book, on the other hand, begins with the account of a man who picked McCandless up while hitchhiking into Alaska and then jumps back in time to discuss how he got there. It's very clear that Krakauer is the narrator and we connect with him as a journalist of sorts who is trying to piece everything together. And while the movie offers no explanation for McCandless' actions the book spends the bulk of the narrative doing just that.
He starts off with a sort-of sociological perspective looking at McCandless side by side with other men who seemed to share his passion and his fate. There are two accounts of men, at various points in time, who also went out in the Alaska wilderness. One was a mountaineer who seemed driven by a troubled relationship with his father and a need to leave a larger legacy than he'd had. One was a man who seemed far too simpleminded to make it as long as he did in life: a simple failure to plan a pick-up led to his demise. The final case is the most striking and it's clear that Krakauer planned it to be. It's the story of a young man similar in age to McCandless who expressed the same ideals and beliefs about how life is to be lived and left just as gaping a hole in the lives of his family and those who knew him. As interesting as I found all of this to be, it pales in comparison to the story of the McCandless family themselves.
The descriptions of Billie and Walt, the boys parents, and his sister, Carine, are the most heartbreaking of the book. And nothing is sparred in the narrative. Krakauer goes into great detail about his life growing up, the observations those who knew him made, and the family secret which ultimately drove him to sever all ties with his family. The bravery these people display in allowing their lives to be laid bare in this book is nothing short of astounding and it goes a long way to explaining this boy's psyche and motivation for what he did.
There's another portion that I just have to share with you, it's too devastating and pure to leave out:
"As she studies the pictures, she breaks down from time to time, weeping as only a mother who has outlived a child can weep, betraying a sense of loss so huge and irreparable that the mind balks at taking its measure. Such bereavement, witnessed at close range, makes even the most eloquent apologia for high-risk activities ring fatuous and hollow."
Like I said, Krakauer blew me away and I suspect I will be checking out some of his other works in the future.
The last section of the book is Krakauer's personal story which he uses as a parallel to explain McCandless' actions. Like McCandless, Krakauer struggled in his relationship with his father and this turmoil led him, he reflects, to perform a number of activities as a rebellion against (but secretly desperate plea for) his father. Like McCandless, he is enamored with nature and his particular method of experiencing it was by climbing mountains. Like McCandless, this aspect of his personality led him to Alaska where he attempted to scale the north face of a mountain called the Devil's Thumb- an action that, like McCandless', could have easily proved fatal.
Krakauer dives into the details of his own personal experience on this mountain as an explanation for the seemingly idiotic actions that so many adolescents struggling to identify themselves as adults take. It isn't cockiness, he explains, nor is it simple rebellion against all of the people who may say that whatever foolhardy endeavor they've set out to achieve is impossible. Instead, he recalls from his own experience, it is a deep lack of understanding of the permanent nature of death and the limitless effects that one's actions have on the world. I think it was this portion of the book that I resonated with most. My teenage years, thankfully, are long behind me but I admit that I had glimpses of the overpowering emotions that I too experienced during that time in my life. And his description of it, with his talent for wording, made me appreciate that aspect of the protagonist's psyche on a much deeper level than I had before.
Krakauer states that he himself could have easily ended up just like McCandless and in the end it was only luck that saved him. And he argues that it was only a bad streak of the same amorphous influence that ultimately killed McCandless.
There were a lot of theories about what exactly caused McCandless to die- some of which Krakauer himself originally posited. In the last chapter he explains each of these one by one and then knocks each one of them down with new research he uncovered after the publication of the original article. I think it's here that Krakauer shows the depth of his respect for the subject of his writing- his refusal to accept the easy answer, his determination to look into every single aspect of his death and his portrayal of himself as someone who could have just as easily succumbed to the same fate all prove unequivocally that McCandless was far more than just a story to Krakauer and I think that's why in the end he is far more than just a story to us.