** spoiler alert **
When I read Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, as I have twice now, I find myself criticizing the subject rather than the writer. The book is the story of Chris McCandless, a twenty-four year old man from a well-to-do family who hitchhiked to Alaska to live in the bush. He died there, leaving behind a family he hadn't spoken to in more than two years and newly-found friends and acquaintances he met along his travels.
The book chronicles his approximately two-year hike across the United States. He hitchhiked, tented, slept in the desert, and somehow settled on the idea that a summer in the Alaska bush would—if not change it—give his life a deeper meaning. In his mind, he was following the path of the writers he loved, most notably Jack London. But he also emulated Tolstoy in his lofty ideals: McCandless was one who seemed to believe, as his father put it, “that you should own nothing but what you can carry on your back at a dead run.” Chris reveled in scrounging for the next meal.
To me, as someone who has been poor and will be poor for the foreseeable future, McCandless's endless romanticization of the hobo lifestyle smacked of unbelievable self-absorption and hypocrisy. He was the son of a man who had top-secret security clearance and a mother who worked alongside her husband to create a successful business. He had excelled academically all through school and could have the job of his choice or create his own business fairly easily. Only someone as well-to-do with such an easy path paved before him could believe he was a better person than the “plastic people” with whom he was forced to share breathing space (such as the people with whom he briefly worked at McDonald's) by hoboing around the country.
But perhaps I am being harsh; McCandless was young and no more hypocritical than I was at his age. And Krakauer, by telling his own story of his relationship with his father, which led to his harrowing climb of Alaska's Devil's Thumb, brings the reader to a more compassionate view of McCandless: he was young and brash and ill-prepared and perhaps even foolish, but he was not stupid, and his death was the result not of his dramatically heeding a “call of the wild,” but of two small errors that turned out to be pivotal and irreversible.
At any rate, Krakauer is a fine, fine writer, and he tells McCandless's story as only a young man who had a similar relationship with his father as Chris did to his can. Yet in the book he is gentle with Chris's parents, writing about them as non-judgmentally as he does about Chris. It's clear that the wisdom he came to in his own life somewhere along the line parallels that of Chris's, only there's a point where Chris's line stops and Krakauer's keeps going. Krakauer was lucky to have survived his own brush with death and not only live to tell the tale, but forgive his father—something McCandless will now never have the opportunity to do.