Book Review: “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer

In April 1992, a young man from a well-to-do East Coast family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. Four months later his decomposed body was found by a party of moose hunters.

(“Author’s Note,” Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer)I

These are (some of) the words that adorn the cover, the words that open Into the Wild, an absolutely brilliant non-fiction book penned by author and mountaineer Jon Krakauer. These words are designed with maximum impact, meant to draw you in and make you want to learn more.

It worked on me, and I think it’ll work on you, too. Buy this book.

These are also the words that I read about sixteen or seventeen years ago–I can’t remember the exact time-frame–when I first learned about the enigma that was Christopher Johnson McCandless, alias “Alexander Supertramp.” It’s actually staggering to think that I first read this book all those years ago, when I was around twelve or thirteen years-old. To really think about all of the things that have come to pass since, the fact that the majority of my life (to date) has transpired since I last read this book…it’s a total mind-fuck, to be frank. (Sorry for the cuss.)

I used to go camping with a family friend named Christine; sometimes we’d go with her (older) daughter, sometimes with another family friend and her daughter…but if I remember correctly, this trip was just the two of us. Or, at least, the trek back to civilization was just the two of us. I was bored. The car ride was taking forever, we’d been in it for what seemed like hours already (but was probably closer to half-an-hour or an hour–you know what boredom is like as a child), when I espied a book either on the backseat or in a bag on the backseat. It doesn’t really matter. Stark white, for the most part, with the black-and-white image of a snow-covered bus on the front and an arresting passage hinting at the lurid details of a tragedy…I had to read this book.

I was hooked from the start.

My 2009 copy of the book

The book itself isn’t very long, something like 200-or-so pages depending on the edition, and I think I’d read about half of it by the time I was dropped off at home. I asked if I could keep the book to finish it–it turned out that someone had lent it to Christine, but I promised to return it, so she relented. I devoured the rest of the book, fascinated by the picture of this young London devotee who, from my adolescent point-of-view, had walked into disaster woefully unprepared and paid the cost. To the judgmental mind of a young teen, he deserved it!

McCandless, for those of you who haven’t read the book, crisscrossed across the United States from the East Coast to the Midwest all the way to the Pacific, and then he made the trek up to North, where he wanted to spend the Spring living away from civilization in the wilderness of Alaska.

He died of starvation, weak and exhausted, possibly due to some sort of poisoning. (An entry in his roughshod “journal” indicates that he believed he was poisoned by potato seeds, and Krakauer [and others] have spent the greater part of twenty-six years trying to determine the veracity of that claim and what might have caused it. The original edition of the book posited that he misidentified a plant, a later edition blamed mold, etc. As far as I’m aware the latest info on that front can be found here.)

McCandless, self-portrait in front of the bus where his remains would be found

When I last read the book, I was still a child. Having now read the book as an “adult,” as a man of almost twenty-nine years…it’s harder to describe how I really feel about Chris McCandless (or Alex, as he preferred to be called throughout most of his ultimately fatal journey). For a long time, I was like a large amount of people who’ve read or heard about his story: I thought that he was an idiot with his head in the clouds. When the 2007 film adaptation of Krakauer’s book was announced, I remember being apprehensive–and I still haven’t watched it, all these years later. I feared that people would look up to McCandless as some sort of idol instead of seeing how foolish he was, and the reactions to the film–I seem to remember people calling him “heroic” or something of the sort at the time–disturbed me.

Now? As I said above, it’s…hard to qualify.

Now, as an adult, with a greater frame of reference for life (albeit not for many of the experiences of either the author of Into the Wild nor its subject), part of me still responds to my adolescent judgmentalism. Part of me wants to sneer, to allow cynicism to take over and damn the man and his dreams; having felt the keen sting of loss much more over the years, the idea that his life was somehow wasted is present and powerful. I feel the pain that his family felt when I read the book, much more so at twenty-nine than I ever could have at twelve or thirteen. But having lived the life that I have, having grown up and learned something about the nature of humanity, having experienced regret most of all…well, part of me can’t help but feel inspired by someone like McCandless. He went into the bush woefully inept and unprepared in some ways–if he’d had a map or explored the region some more, it’s almost a certainty he would have survived–but he was also able to survive, for the most part fairly well, for the greater part of over one-hundred days in the wilderness.

I don’t have any illusion that I’d make it anywhere near as long as he did.

But aside from that, the optimist and dreamer in my own being reveres the drive of someone like McCandless, the boundless spirit. I’m mostly a homebody, as anyone who really knows me can attest, but wanderlust appeals in some insidious way to my spirit. “The West,” the drive westward fascinates me as it did the papar monks mentioned by Krakauer, as it fascinated McCandless, as it fascinated the author of and fictional characters within one of my favourite universes, Middle-earth. It has to be part of the reason why I was actually looking forward to moving to Windsor from Toronto.

Reading about the journey is often enough to sate my own desires; someone like McCandless needed to actually go to the extremes. Part of me understands and respects that.

These two halves struggle with one another, and the picture that emerges both at the end of the novel and in my own perception of the man who lived and died in the Alaskan wilderness inside a derelict bus is…complex, to say the least. It’s full of dreams and hopes, and bitter pain and regret. In the strangest, most ironic way, McCandless’s story isn’t really about death at all–it’s about life, in all its various forms. It doesn’t seem to matter what we, the readers, think about McCandless; no, what matters more is the way that he touched other people’s lives, for good or ill. He was a magnet that drew people to him, despite whatever faults he may have had. There’s something magical, melancholic, pitiful, wonderful…something absolutely vital about the human interaction and drama that rests at the centre of the narrative of this man’s life and death. Hearing about the tangential figures of his fatal journey somehow serves to bring us closer and push us further away from who he really was.

Did he even really know who he was? Do any of us know who we are? These are questions that haunt the book and haunt our lives. I don’t know the answer.

I finished reading the book earlier today, this afternoon. There’s something strangely peaceful about the chapters detailing the last days of his life. He doesn’t go out with a whimper, even though he died alone, cold, in an abandoned bus out in the middle of nowhere. Somehow, something about this man seems like a victory. It might not be full, it might ultimately ring hollow, but it’s there. Conversely, I bawled my eyes out at the epilogue, with his parents taken by helicopter to the site of their son’s demise. It has an almost grotesquely voyeur quality to it, reading about the pain and suffering of their loss and the release and acceptance of their grief. The heroism melts away as his mother mourns her son and is unable to fully grasp the why. It’s the constant question, posed throughout the book both about McCandless and the other historical examples Krakauer compares him to.

I’m not sure it’s a question that the book is able to fully answer, or that anyone can.

What are we left with at the end of the book, then, at the end of this man’s life? For me, I’m left with a sense of purpose–I don’t want my life to be viewed as a waste, I want to contribute something that will live on after I am dead. I’m also left with a desire to take part in life, in all its forms, good and bad; I’m left wanting to tell all the people that I love how much I love them, and that I’ll never forget them.

In the end, part of me hates Christopher Johnson McCandless, alias “Alexander Supertramp.” Part of me wants to rail against everything that he stood for.

But another part of me understands him. Another part of me wishes that he’d lived in spite of his hubris. Another part of me loves him. And while I can be a cynic, I can be an asshole, I can be someone who gives into despair and choler…Virgil’s phrase somehow rings true like a light in the darkness: Omnia vincit amor–“love conquers all.”

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