The Last American Man, by Elizabeth Gilbert

I am a bad friend, clearly. A long time ago (almost six months!), my friends Laura and Deborah gave me lots of books to read. I finished Deborah’s book within the month, but had barely looked at Laura’s pile until a week ago, because I was looking for something else entirely to read. See, I wanted to start re-reading the delightful Thursday Next series, but realized that I had lent the first book out to a friend and hadn’t gotten it back yet. Then I realized that I hadn’t given Laura’s books back yet, and hadn’t even read them yet, and I went, “Oh no! Time to read some books!” I don’t think I’ll be able to read them right in a row now, but I think I can get them back before she graduates in May… -fingers crossed!- I need you guys to keep me to this! Yell at me if I don’t mention Laura and her books for a while! Yell at me anyway for being a terrible book-borrower!

Anyway, on to the book!

The Last American Man was actually the book that Laura told me I didn’t have to read, but I was intrigued by the subject — it’s about this real person (non-fiction what?) called Eustace Conway who lives off in the woods and makes his own clothes and shoots his own dinner, but who also spends a lot of time booking speaking engagements and running a summer camp and trying to convince other people that they should run off to the woods and make their own clothes and shoot their own dinner.

Gilbert talked with pretty much everyone in Conway’s life, including his overbearing father (is there any other kind in a story like this?), loving mother, indifferent siblings, friends, workers, and many, many lovers. I thought a lot of book was repetitive — there are only so many ways to talk about one person — but it was useful to see how set in his ways Conway is, how he’s not really thrilled with the life he’s living but can’t figure out how to change it without changing his entire personality.

I was reading my school newspaper the other day, and every article on the front page had one of those ledes that’s like, “Joe isn’t your average sophomore” or “Sue-face looks like a normal college student, but…” or “You think Steve is crazy, but he’s really just a normal kid” — emphasizing the oppositeness of a person’s self to his/her reputation. Gilbert could certainly have done this in her book, because she does make the point that for as much as Conway seems like a mountain man, he’s really just a good businessman who has the same insecurities we all do. But she doesn’t start with that observation; she lets you learn all about Conway’s mountain man life, how it started for him as a kid and just kept going, and then she starts dropping in the business man vignettes and the insecurities and the amazing contradictions of Conway’s life, and she gives you a minute to figure out the importance of these stories before she tells you what she thinks of them. I was delighted.

One Laura book down, four to go!

Rating: 7/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2002, A to Z Challenge)

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Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.