Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
In late summer 1992, Chris McCandless completed the most spectacular performance of his short and extravagant life. He died of starvation, alone, in the back country of Alaska.
The basic facts of McCandless’ death are well-known. The national mediaalways on the lookout for a beautiful young corpsebombarded audiences with the story. The Washington Post sent a reporter to Arlington’s W.T. Woodson High School to interview McCandless’ former cross-country coach. Even the staid New York Times weighed in with dispatches from Alaska. Somewhere in the San Fernando Valley, a producer has no doubt started planning the Chris McCandless movieLeonardo DiCaprio stars in Hunger for Life!but for the moment, obsessive necrophiles will have to make do with John Krakauer’s Into the Wild.
Krakauer is a veteran on the McCandless beat. In January 1993, he published a 9,000-word article about McCandless in Outside magazine. Now he has expanded it into a bookand a confusing book it is.
At its best, Into the Wild is a compelling whodunit. “In April 1992,” Krakauer writes, “a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself. Four months later, his decomposed body was found by a moose hunter.”
This tantalizing paragraph introduces an irresistible murder mystery: Whoor perhaps, whatkilled Chris McCandless? The book opens with the discovery of a body; it closes with McCandless, wasted to a skeletal 67 pounds, crawling into his sleeping bag to die. In between, Krakauer distributes the clues: the terse diary McCandless kept on his Alaska journey; the marked-up copy of Thoreau’s Walden; the family deserted in Annandale, Va.; a false name; a made-up history; and the eerie landscape of the Outer Range, the Stampede Trail, and the Savage River.
Krakauer, a competent writer, knows better than to interfere too much with a great story. He gives readers a more or less chronological account of McCandless’ life. Born in 1968, McCandless was raised in Annandale (a suburb that is only marginally preferable to the barren Alaskan wildernessAnnandale has good cable, at least). Chris battled with his domineering father and, like most sensitive teenagers, went slightly crazy. He became a fanatical cross-country runner and fervently attached himself to political causes. He attended Emory University, bucking constantly at its conventionality. He graduated in 1990, and vanished. His family never heard from him again.
McCandless spent the next two years exploring the West. On a whim, he canoed down the Colorado Riversoloto the Gulf of California, shooting rapids, crossing the Mexican border illegally, paddling his canoe over a dam, and nearly starving to death along the way. He harvested grain in South Dakota, rode the rails up the Pacific Coast, and lived on the streets of San Diego and Seattle.
He gravitated to nomadic communities in California, a Pynchonesque underworld that Krakauer calls “a vision of post-apocalypse America.” He camped with other dropouts from society at “The Slabs,” an abandoned Navy air base outside Niland, and passed some time at Oh-My-God Hot Springs, a hippie/nudist encampment in Salton Springs.
Along the way, he read Thoreau, Tolstoy, and Jack London, and developed his own seat-of-the-pants philosophyextreme ascetism married to extreme aestheticism. He became a pilgrim in quest of the sublimeof beauty, of ecstasy, of suffering. As Krakauer tells it, Chris McCandless was fated to die, or live trying.
McCandless’ wanderings in the lower 48 were a mere warm-up for what he called his “great Alaskan odyssey”his ultimate test of himself. In April 1992, he hitchhiked to the head of Alaska’s Stampede Trail, a little-used hunting and snowmobiling track. In late spring, it was still covered with more than a foot of snow. Thereequipped with a .22 rifle, ammunition, some books, and a little ricehe lived out his Thoreauvian fantasy. He gathered wild tubers, shot ptarmigan, squirrel, grouse, and a moose, and hiked through the long days of the Alaska summer.
He made his camp inside an old school bus that had been dumped along the trail as a hunting shelter. McCandless graffitied the inside of the bus with his barbaric yawps: “Two years he walks the earth…
Ultimate Freedom. An Extremist. An Aesthetic Voyager Whose Home Is The Road”; “All Hail the Dominant Primordial Beast!” He signed the messages with his nom de voyage: “Alexander Supertramp.”
No fool he, Krakauer understands that this is fundamentally a story about deatha 1990s version of “To Build a Fire,” minus the overhanging branch. Readers are voyeurs, and deep in the reptilian core of their brains, they want to know exactly how Chris McCandless died. Krakauer does not disappoint, chronicling McCandless’ mistakes and describing his slow death in intense, almost erotic, detail. I will not spoil the ending, except to say that Mother Naturethe prime suspect from the very beginning of the storyis, in fact, the killer.
Krakauer deftly weaves together postcards, diaries, and interviews with McCandless’ friends and family members. There are, surprisingly, no photos in Into the Wild except those on the dust jacket. This gap is especially frustrating, because such photos exist: Krakauer frequently refers to pictures that McCandless took and that he himself saw. Likewise, McCandless’ cryptic diary is often mentioned but sporadically quoted. This absence, too, is unfortunate, because those entries Krakauer cites are enticing: “Day 100! Made it! But in weakest condition of life. Death looms as a serious threat….Have literally become trapped in the wild.”
Into the Wild illustrates the principal peril of the book contract: A writer must collect enough information to fill 200 pages. As mystery, as adventure yarn, Into the Wild is above reproach, but Krakauer has only 120 pages of solid material. His two chunks of juicy narrative bracket an 80-page mush of hagiography, history, and autobiography.
Krakauer tries to make a martyr of McCandless; he quotes passages from Dr. Zhivago, Walden, and Tolstoy’s “Family Happiness,” then noteswith absurd portentousnessthat these bits were favored by the doomed traveler. After one such quotation, Krakauer notes, “Passage highlighted in one of the books found with Chris McCandless’ remains. At the top of the page, the word Truth had been written in large block letters in McCandless’ hand.”
McCandless’ early life is similarly imbued with mythic grandeur, and long passages are devoted to his worthy but dull family. To fill out the balance of the book, Krakauer discusses other free spirits who perished in the wilderness, and describes his own twentysomething northern odyssey, a near-fatal trek across the Stikine Ice Cap. This latter section seems especially gratuitousKrakauer survived, after allexcept to demonstrate how strongly the writer identifies with his subject.
Ultimately, Chris McCandless can’t support the weight that Krakauer piles upon him. McCandless had no great interest in changing the world. He thought and wrote awkwardly. He treated those who loved him with cruelty. He was a brave, intelligent kid, but one who is remembered principally for having died doing something rather odd. Krakauer looks at Chris McCandless and sees a young man who could have been Thoreau. Others may see a young man who shouldn’t have read so much Thoreau.CP