2 out of 5 stars
Cut to the Chase:
It’s possible that I just wasn’t in the mood for a fiction/non-fiction, man-against-wilderness read, and for that, I apologize. I was helping a student with this assignment, and thus, had to read it. I found the book… unbearably frustrating. It delves deeply (almost too deeply) into the teenage angst-y feelings and emotions of McCandless. We have interviews from his father, his mother, his friends, and it just feels… too much. For a book that’s about a wilderness adventure, we spend remarkably little time hearing about those final days, and the pages and pages of details describing his unhappiness, his desire to be bigger and better and leave behind the shackles of society, all felt like kind of cliched pre-pubescent ramblings (from both the author and the protagonist). There are bits of writing that are quite well done, even beautiful, but they’re buried until needless trivia and overly-long descriptions.
In Greater Detail:
Krakauer was initially assigned the McCandless story as a magazine article (I have to admit I’m curious to go back and read the article, it felt like this entire book would have been much better if I could have read it in a cliff-notes, important-stuff-only version). After writing the article, Krakauer became fascinated by the McCandless story, wondering how a well-liked, charismatic young man with a degree from Emory and the promise of jobs/law school etc, would decide to donate his money, change his name (from MacCandless to Alex Supertramp) and go on the ultimate soul-searching, wilderness adventure.
There are parts of this book that are very man-versus-nature, Jack London. But the majority of the book (other than the very beginning section, where we learn about McCandless going into the Alaskan wilderness hopelessly unprepared and far-too-optimistically overconfident about how he’ll be able to outsmart the necessity of preparedness) drags. We see letters and hear conversations about how he’s insulted that his father would try to buy him a car (because he doesn’t need one, and because it would be tantamount to buying his respect, or even his career). We see how he planned to just drop off the face of the earth, leaving one last note for his parents and feeling gleeful that he’d cut himself off from them without them ever suspecting he was planning a rebellion… all of these actions ultimately diminish the grand romance behind his planned Alaskan trek and make him seem like a younger, willful teen or pre-teen wanting to strike back at (somewhat controlling) parents.
The ending of the novel, the supposedly climax, is also a bit of a letdown. First, we take a diversion to other people who have tried similar man-versus-wilderness escapades, some tragic, and others, merely, lesson-learned (like the author, Krakauer, who came to the edge of trouble only to back away in time). Then, when we do finally read what happened to McCandless (it’s not a happy ending) it is, of course, almost pure speculation. There have been articles and studies since (many of which Krakauer has commented on himself) as to the actual cause of death, but by the end of the book, though I’m sad at the loss of human life… part of me also just doesn’t care any more. Neither the author (who tries, but I think fails, to stay impartial) or McCandless come off as particular sympathetic, and thus, despite some patches of good writing, it’s not a book I can recommend.
Comparison to Other Books/Authors
From a fiction perspective, this felt like a faster version of some Jack London stories. From a philosophical dent, it seems like McCandless probably believed in Thoreau’s tenets. Otherwise, I haven’t read enough in this arena partially fictionalized/nonfiction/adventure, to really make comparisons.