** spoiler alert **
My grandfather--not an Alaskan but an experienced outdoorsman--would have tied this kid to a tree and let the bears play tetherball with him.
A small part of me appreciates the effort Krakauer put into researching this book. A much bigger part of me is completely disgusted both with McCandless himself and with Krakauer's mindless adoration of him. Krakauer pulls out all the stops to make McCandless look like a phenomenon, and seems to agree with McCandless that the world should have handed itself to him on a silver salver because he was just so darned special. We're told he was brilliant, independent, funny, kind, musical, athletic, visionary, talented. Can you see the halo? Unfortunately, the impression that comes across is of a snotty adolescent who has never seriously thought of anyone but himself and is used to getting by on charm and flippancy rather than making good use of his considerable gifts (and I do not doubt that he was gifted). The conflicting aspects of his personality don't sound quirky; they sound devious and self-serving.
Krakauer tries half-heartedly to disguise his fascination but his admissions that McCandless was a clueless young hothead sound insincere; he has to say it to sound credible to his readers, who are less smitten. Krakauer makes an apt comparison between himself as an idealistic and foolhardy young man, and McCandless, and then dismisses himself because "he didn't have [McCandless':] intellect". This sounds utterly bogus after all we have been told about McCandless' foolish mistakes, and the obvious fact that Krakauer is not stupid. Two chapters that could have provided some insight into his hero are wasted because Krakauer sounds like a religious fanatic, with McCandless as his unknowable God and Krakauer as the I'm-not-worthy follower.
McCandless' (and Everett Ruess') overconfidence speaks to a fascination with nature but not a respect for it. Courage is not the same as not knowing when we ought to have a healthy degree of fear. Instead, McCandless arrogantly drives his car into the habitat of an endangered species of poppy. He butchers a moose, wasting the life of a beautiful and well-adapted animal because he could not be bothered to learn ahead of time how to preserve it.
This was not a tragedy; this was inevitable. I don't believe he was schizophrenic or suicidal. Bipolar or ADD, maybe. His own friends readily admitted that he had a lot of enthusiasm but little common sense and didn't know much outside of academia. There are so many glaring outdoorsmanship errors made in the first two chapter that even I was cringing.
I write this with full admission that I am not much of an outdoorsperson. However, I don't believe for a minute that he lasted longer than most of us would have, or that "at least he tried it", as so many of his fans insist. I wouldn't try it, not because I'm scared, but because I can tell from here that ten pounds of rice and no preparation is a recipe for failure. I don't need to try it, and if I did, I'd want to live to get something out of it. Lots of other people have gone into the wilderness and come out just fine because they knew the magnitude of their own insignificance and planned ahead.
I'm not jealous of his alleged brilliance, either. I was accepted to Emory. And the University of Chicago. And a couple of other amply respected schools. Lots of people are. Big deal.
1) His bourgeois status made his adventure possible in the first place. He had money to pay his college tuition; the rest of us graduated and went to work to pay off our loans. He also had the gall to complain about his parents' offers to help him out, which smacks of a kid given so much that he doesn't know how fortunate he is.
Furthermore, living with nothing by choice is very different from living with nothing because you have no alternative. Though I'm sure he would have denied it, McCandless had the option of going back to his affluent life if he had wanted to, or if he had had to in an emergency. Maybe it would have knocked his self-image for a loop, but he would have been sheltered, fed, and nursed back to health. A lot of people live in poverty without that safety net.
2) Now is not the time to be squeamish about killing animals. Hint: There are no vegetarian Aleut. This guy was a history and anthropology major. I learned in anthro that you can eat plants and lean protein until you burst and still starve to death if you aren't getting enough calories. It's very difficult to feed yourself if you're alone and don't have a lot of practice at it.
3) If he got this idea from Thoreau and London, he wasn't reading very carefully. McCandless should have read less Thoreau and more Donner Party. London's Alaskan experience was during the Klondike Gold Rush when he had plenty of help from others. Thoreau lived in a cabin on the edge of town, a mile and a half from the family home. He was not in the wilderness. Furthermore, Thoreau's civil disobedience was a protest against the Mexican War and slavery, not a petty defiance of matters of public safety such as mandatory car insurance. McCandless was a rebel without a cause.
4) Book-smart can't save you now. Success-only learning does not work. Krakauer goes into raptures about McCandless' education and intelligence to demonstrate the supposed tragedy of his loss. Nice brain gymnastics, but apples to oranges when what you need is practical knowledge.
This guy was idolized by some my college classmates, most of whom were sheltered, relatively wealthy urbanites. They had the same vague and pathetic need for "real" experiences and arrogant expectation of success that comes from never having failed at anything in their lives.
5) For most of his trip, McCandless was neither independent or self-reliant. He got lost in Mexico; it would have been more self-reliant to get a map and take charge of his own navigation. He didn't eat for days until somebody felt sorry for him and fed him. Once he was in a situation where there was nobody to step in for him, he died (in this respect, I disagree with Krakauer that McCandless was any different from Carl McCunn). Even at that point, he left a note on the door of the bus begging for rescue.
The best (and most independent) outdoorsmen spend years learning. Just because you were a superstar student and athlete doesn't mean you get to skip all the hard work. I've no doubt that McCandless was smart, but he was mind-bogglingly ignorant and inexperienced.
6) Why are these self-discovery escapades always so self-centered? How about joining the Peace Corps? Teaching in inner-city schools? Working in healthcare in a remote South Asian village? If you're so disgusted with society, why don't you do something to improve it rather than keeping all the enlightenment for yourself?
7) Nature is not your babysitter. Nature doesn't care if you live or die. It's survival of the fittest, and humans, compared to most animals, are slow, weak, poorly-armed, poorly-insulated, have no stamina; have poor senses of smell, eyesight, and hearing; and are ill-adapted to go without clean water and food for any length of time. We are clearly meant to live in groups and use tools. This guy didn't even bring an ax.
8) He was already controlled and tainted by society or else he would not have worked so hard to avoid it. His anti-society and anti-materialism were as controlling of him as is the materialism of those who think they can "find themselves" by buying the right clothes or drug habit or SUV.
9) Unprepared people who set out on ill-planned "adventures" and need to be rescued are jackasses. A lot of other people–-better-prepared, better-trained, and more sensible people such as park service, volunteers, and EMT's–-end up spending a lot of time and money, and risking their own necks, to save them. McCandless spared everyone that trouble, but I'm sure there's a whole line of wannabes lined up to try it. I hope they have to pay back every penny spent on their rescues.
And Truth? The bad news is that Truth is relative. It doesn't exist in a vacuum. What a waste.