Man-sized contradictions

“By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree,” begins The Last American Man, Elizabeth Gilbert’s tour de force about a controversial local citizen.

“When he turned seventeen 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 animals he had hunted and eaten.”

And so Conway leaps, larger than life, into the reader’s imagination. The return to simplicity is utterly compelling. Halfway through the book, I started rethinking my own life. By the time I was done, I couldn’t bring myself to turn on the TV at the end of the day. Gilbert provides not only a riveting story — furthered by her no-holds-barred editorials — but a dose of reality. This is a real man. He’s actually living this way.

“He lives in the woods because he belongs there,” Gilbert writes. “Moreover, he tries to get other people to move into the woods with him, because he believes that is his particular calling — nothing less than to save our nation’s collective soul by reintroducing America to the concept of revelatory communion with the frontier. Which is to say that Eustace Conway believes that he is a Man of Destiny.”

That sense of destiny drove Conway like a madman to test his own fortitude constantly. At age 18, he went down the Mississippi in a handmade boat. The following year, he trekked the length of the Appalachian Trail, living largely off what he hunted and gathered. He kayaked across Alaska, hiked the German Alps, and wandered through the jungle of Guatemala in search of remote Mayan Indians. He rode horseback across the entire United States. He did all that, cheerfully replying to those who called out, “I want to do what you’re doing!”: “You can!”

Another side of the myth

The Last American Man (Viking, 2002) may seem, at first, to present Conway as a Herculean figure, but Gilbert takes the liberty of knocking him down a size from time to time. She delves into the complexities of Conway’s family, such as his unresolved issues with his father, which drive him to prove himself. She even holds the microscope to his shortcomings in relationships with girlfriends and with the interns at Turtle Island, Conway’s 1,000-acre wilderness preserve located near Boone, N.C. In short, Gilbert makes the Man of Destiny human.

“I never claim as a writer to be objective,” Gilbert admitted in a recent interview. “I was trying to tell the story in terms of relating the facts. It’s not to pull him apart so we can feel better, but to say, look, we’re all on this journey together.”

Gilbert met Conway eight years ago. “When I met him, he left a huge bruise on my conscience. I kept thinking about him and his relationship with his family,” she says. Already a frequent contributor to GQ, Gilbert wrote an article about the mountain man that attracted a lot of attention. Conway received more than 100 letters from hopeful women willing to be his 19th-century companion. Film director Ron Howard began pondering the possibility of a movie. Things sort of took off.

“I wanted to write the book to make sure there was a balance in telling the story, that [Conway] wouldn’t be used to represent someone else’s agenda,” Gilbert explains. She spent nearly three years compiling information from trunks of journals and letters that Conway let her access.

Then, in her own Herculean feat, Gilbert cranked out the book’s first draft in a mere 30 days.

“I thought — ‘This is what Eustace is like everyday’ — that focused,” Gilbert muses.

“But,” she admits, “I’ll probably never work that way again.”

The effort proved worthwhile. Conway was happy with the book, it met with rave reviews, and was on its third printing in about as many weeks.

So they sold the movie rights — it wasn’t just Ron Howard who saw screen-worthy material. “We were really hoping to do it with Ron,” Conway said in a recent talk with Xpress. “We still might get to, but we sold it to Warner Brothers.”

Warner Brothers? The company that brought movie-going audiences the likes of Mars Attacks and Vegas Vacation? That’s right. And there’s talk of Russell Crowe playing the title role.

It seems the guy who damns TV as “one of the worst things in our culture” might have some explaining to do.

“I’m strong enough to stand up to confrontation,” Conway insists. “I hate TV,” he says, referring to the ‘Kill Your Television’ bumper-sticker on his truck, “but I can reach people that way.

“So why,” he continues rhetorically, “would this guy who hates TV so much want to make a movie? Well, it’s a longer-lasting way to reach people.”

Gilbert herself claims immunity to the Hollywood syndrome, though it was her short story, “The Muse of the Coyote Ugly Saloon,” that became Touchstone Entertainment’s Coyote Ugly. “[Conway]’s an incredibly canny self-promoter and so a big, massive publicity machine like Warner Bothers might be just the thing for him,” she suggests.

The author never claimed her subject was without his contradictions. In fact, her book covers many pages detailing Conway’s multi-faceted personality. She is the one who once asked him, “Have you ever wondered if you might benefit the world more by actually living the life you always talk about?” (Though his basic lifestyle stays true to his back-to-the-land ethics, Conway is hardly a laid-back country dweller: He has spent an extraordinary amount of time on the lecture circuit, for instance — a schedule to which book promotion has now been added. In fact, it was Conway’s near-constant tours of schools that enabled him to purchase Turtle Island.)

“Eustace created Turtle Island — as a wild monastery — [because] he is convinced that the only way modern America can begin to reverse its inherent corruption and greed and malaise is by feeling the rapture that comes from face-to-face encounters with what he calls ‘the high art and godliness of nature,'” Gilbert writes early on. Conway still runs the wilderness preserve, hoping to attract more people to what he has to teach.

“I’m about getting people in touch with their environment, to find out where stuff comes from and where trash goes,” Conway says. “Very simple stuff, but we need to do a lot more. That’s the biggest message.”

So how does that message translate to the crowds who will drive their cars to cineplexes built on former farmland, crowds that buy tickets because it’s Russell Crowe, not because it’s Eustace Conway? What about the faithful fans who’ve been getting the point since Conway’s days of writing columns on cooking with wood for Mother Earth News?

All that remains to be seen; Conway’s story is still very much in the making.

“What drew me to Eustace was not that he was a prophet, but that he was a great story,” Gilbert explains. “I love a great story, and if this movie can tell a great story, then I’ll be really happy with it.”

Settling for stardom?

“The history of Eustace Conway is the history of man’s progress on the North American Continent,” Gilbert writes near the close of the book. “First he slept on the ground and wore furs. He made fire with sticks. … He was first an Indian, then an explorer, then a pioneer. He built himself a cabin and became a true settler.” If his vision manifests, like-minded people will build homes around Turtle Island, aiding each other at harvest and trading goods. Then Conway will be a villager.

“He evolves before our eyes,” Gilbert states.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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