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'The Last American Man' by Elizabeth Gilbert

Man and nature vs. the nature of man

Sunday, June 30, 2002

By Elizabeth Bennett

 
 

The Last American Man

By Elizabeth Gilbert

Viking
$24.95

   
 

Before becoming a journalist and novelist (“Stern Men”), Elizabeth Gilbert was a waitress in Philadelphia and New York and a cowgirl in Wyoming. Those experiences in the real world paid off for this dazzling young writer.

She turned them into creative nonfiction for GQ and other magazines, including a story about her job in a grungy Manhattan bar that was made into the movie “Coyote Ugly.”

Now Gilbert has written what may be her best piece yet -- the true story of a modern-day mountain man that begins: “By the time Eustace Conway was 7 years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree. ... When he turned 12, he went out into the woods, alone and empty-handed, built himself a shelter and survived off the land for a week. When he turned 17, he moved out of his family’s home altogether and headed into the mountains, where he lived in a teepee of his own design, made fire by rubbing two sticks together, bathed in icy streams, and dressed in the skins of the animals he had hunted and eaten ...”

Thirteen years later, Conway, the subject of Gilbert’s book, still lives in the woods -- but on a slightly different scale. His home is Turtle Island, a highly organized and functional primitive farm he designed on 1,000 acres in the Southern Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina.

Complete with a blacksmith shop where Conway does his own smithing, plus a 40-foot-tall barn built by apprentices who’d never worked construction before, Turtle Island is a university-in-the-raw.

Young campers come for nature walks and hikes to waterfalls and ponds, to ride horses and to make knots and play Indian game; adults come for weeklong seminars.

A charismatic and romantic figure, Conway believes he is a “man of destiny.” His dream is to lead modern Americans back to nature and away from their materialistic lives, and at mid-life, he has worked hard to achieve that dream.

He has introduced hundreds of people to the wonders of nature and the importance of preserving it. He has also proven his wilderness skills and willpower by -- among other extraordinary feats -- kayaking across Alaska and hiking 2,000 miles on the Appalachian Trail, surviving only on what he could find along the way to eat.

“Eustace’s skills in the wilderness are truly legion,” Gilbert writes.

“When I once asked him, ‘Is there anything you can’t do?’ [he] replied, ‘Well, I’ve never found anything to be particularly difficult.’ ”

But like other fallible beings, this modern-day mountain man is not perfect, and his biggest problem -- not surprisingly -- is relating to other people. While Conway demands much of himself, he is equally demanding of others, setting himself up for constant heartbreak, particularly with women.

Eager to marry and have children, he has lived with many beautiful, accomplished females but found none able -- or willing -- to meet his high expectations.

He also has a troubled history with his father and siblings, as well as trainees on Turtle Island, many of whom got fed up with Conway’s arrogance and controlling nature and left before their apprenticeships ended.

Gilbert paints a fascinating picture of a brilliant and flawed man, but her 271-page book is more than just a biography of Conway. It also takes a fresh, provocative look at everything from the American frontier and famous utopias to the current state of American manhood.

She combines earthy language and spirited writing to come up with a book that explores some important questions about our culture and is also a delight to read.

Elizabeth Bennett is a free-lance writer in Houston.

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