When I first heard about Elizabeth Gilbert’s book The Last American Man, I was more than skeptical. I seem to recall making bitter remarks about it to one of the booksellers here at Malaprop’s, something along these lines:
“Oh, how cute! What a surprise! Just what we needed in these troubled times. Woman journalist from the Northeast meets primitive skills guru in Northern Mountains of North Carolina. Will this be an HBO exclusive, or will it be a Hollywood romantic comedy starring Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts?”
It all just seemed too contrived—to slick, you know? Sort of an “Appalachian Dundee” kind of thing: Her profile of a modern-day mountain man who wants to save the world by leading it back into the wilderness.
I could almost hear the dialogue in my head--all the perky, plucky assertions of feminine curiosity falling softly—like acid raindrops—against the stony, moss-backed indifference exhibited by self-satisfied masculinity. The outcome of this confrontation would be predictable—erosion is inevitable, and usually irrevocable—or so I thought.
Yeah. Well, I was wrong about this book. Wrong. Oh, really, really, wrong.
Not just the “well, I’ll be damned, who would of thunk it?” kind of wrong. But that spectacular kind of wrong that lights up the sky at night; that kind of megaton, supernova kind of wrong that is so cathartic and so necessary for self-doubting know-it-all critics like myself.
I was inspirationally wrong. Life-changing wrong.
The Last American Man achieves perfection on so many levels that I really don’t know how to begin to describe it. Here, the perfect story and the perfect storyteller combine, like a conjunction of two powerful planets, to forever alter your perceptions of human limitations.
With her tremendous courage, her delightful wit and humor, and her alarming perceptiveness, Elizabeth Gilbert goes where few men dare to go—deep within their own ceaselessly yearning, perpetually misunderstood, and far too easily-wounded hearts.
In her brilliant illumination of the heart belonging to such a formidable man as Eustace Conway, Ms. Gilbert reveals the unrealized hopes and deeply rooted fears of our rugged frontier nation—a nation that seems compelled to always run uphill in order to get to the bottom of anything.
As portrayed by Ms. Gilbert, the life of Eustace Conway is at once an affirmation of and yet the cautionary tale behind that most American of ideals: “We Can Make It Perfect.” Through her eyes we see a fantastic self-made creature who was able to rise above the ashes of his tortured childhood through his uncompromising commitment to perfection—perfection as created by his own capable hands, or that perfection found in nature.
Yet Eustace Conway’s own sense of attainable perfection appeared so inextricably and unrealistically bound to his vision of the unlimited healing potential of nature that he is at once the freest of men and yet the most enslaved—and, perhaps to many who have spent much time with this intense man, Eustace Conway may be one of the most enslaving of men, as well.
Conway was so driven—and ultimately so obscured by—the magnitude of his wilderness accomplishments that he often failed to appreciate the devastation wrought by his successes. Likewise, as Ms. Gilbert poignantly relates, Conway appeared incapable of finding the potential for personal redemption within his own failures, such as those experienced while conducting his quest for the perfect wife.
Eustace Conway’s intimate relationships were repeatedly consumed by the flames of his desire for perfection; far too often, his partner’s identity became fragmented and engulfed by his own. The woman’s own thoughts and feelings and convictions ended up like so many leaves sucked inside a whirling fire devil.
Perhaps Eustace Conway’s most extraordinary act of selflessness and courage was to allow himself to be the object of Ms. Gilbert’s penetrating study. Without a doubt, Mr. Conway is a Man Utterly Revealed To All by Ms. Gilbert’s work. His courage and selflessness are his most enduring gifts to us, and I am forever in his debt.
I think Ms. Gilbert’s book is essentially an all-inclusive love-letter to men, that most unpredictable and dangerous of beasts. And that is her gift to us. Like the rider of a wild horse, Gilbert is at times exasperated, outraged, wounded and profoundly discouraged by the whole experience. She cusses and stomps and makes wickedly cutting yet hilarious remarks. But she understands without blame, and corrects without punishment---and that makes her the perfect rider.
I mean, the perfect writer.
© Copyright 2002 by KNS Maré