I gave Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love a warm but restrained review. At the end of that book, though, I saw an ad for her previous book, The Last American Man, her biography of modern mountain man Eustace Conway. The blurb noted that Conway had been a survivalist since his teens, and had been living in the woods full-time since 1977, in addition to such stunts as walking the entire length of the Appalachians and riding a horse from coast to coast. I got this book quickly, devoured it ravenously, and am delighted to say that my praise for this book of Gilbert’s will see no trace of the hesitations I gave her most recent and more popular effort. The Last American Man is easily the best thing I’ve read so far this year.
One of the problems with Eat, Pray, Love is that it often reads like an unedited diary. This friendly casualness is largely a strength, but it can become grating when someone dwells for so long on the neurotic nuances of their own head. My only expectation upon opening The Last American Man was that Gilbert’s gift for prose might work more effectively if she were not at the center of the action, and I was greatly rewarded–her narration of anecdotes, her sequencing of events, and her general sense of balance and perspective throughout the book are nearly flawless. This is a top-notch biography.
Gilbert does perhaps spend a bit too much time reporting on Conway’s love life, but if so, it’s a small fault. The women who have factored into Conway’s life make his story richer, and show us even more of the man himself.
And Conway is the hero of this book, in any sense of the word. Gilbert worships him, and his plain but forceful life demands our respect and esteem–not to mention that it’s seriously entertaining. Any preconceptions you might have about Conway based on what I’ve said so far will be shattered by the deep reality of his true story. (more…)