Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Into the Wild

‘Sakhi’ Book Club Jan. 2011 Pick

            Jon Krakauer’s books reveal his interest in people who live on the edge, pushing their frail physical resources to the extreme. “Into the Wild” is no exception. Krakauer candidly admits his fascination with the life and death of Christopher Johnson McCandless.

            McCandless is an absorbing subject. Coming from a privileged background, and apparently gifted in many areas, he tosses it all aside after graduating from college to embark on the life of a vagabond, calling himself ‘Alex Supertramp’. When his anguished family hears about him again two years later, it is only to learn of his death from starvation in the wilderness of Alaska. This was a tragically ironic end to an idealistic young man. Before abandoning the life he knew, McCandless had magnanimously donated the remaining $24,000 in his college fund to OXFAM, a charity dedicated to fighting hunger.

            The media exhaustively covered McCandless’s story. Jon Krakauer himself wrote about it for ‘Outside’ magazine. The feedback on that article was mostly excoriating, especially from native Alaskans, who deplored this attention given to a misguided, probably even mentally disturbed young man.

            Krakauer’s journalistic instinct, however suggested that there was more to this story than met the eye. His meticulous research turns up evidence of a multi-faceted youth, who though eccentric, was certainly sane. Alex/Chris defies easy pigeonholing; he was a charismatic loner who easily made a favorable impression on people he met. Apparently living a hippie life, he nevertheless adhered to the highest ethical values – personal dignity, no drugs, no rock and roll, no sex. What was his attraction to the wilderness? Was it the possibility of living a life unencumbered by society’s rules and expectations; was it part of an intense quest for spiritual fulfillment; or was it just a pie-in-the-sky delusion of an ill-prepared boy who thought he could take on the desolate wastes of Alaska?

            Jon Krakauer brings his usual intensity and thoroughness to this book as he does elsewhere. As to how Alex/Chris met his death, the author’s reasoning is quite convincing. He suggests many possibilities for McCandless's vanishing act into the Wild. However, by the end of the book Christopher Johnson McCandless is as intriguingly enigmatic as he was at the beginning, perhaps even more so.

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