I’ve come to appreciate Jon Krakauer more and more as a writer since I was a young pup, when I refused to read Into Thin Air mostly because I was told to. Though in fact my English professor at the time introduced us1 to Krakauer by way of an article about (or an excerpt from—I can’t remember which) Into the Wild, Krakauer’s first book, and a sort of primer on the very idea of wanderlust, or the necessity of itchy people to do silly things for ultimately unfathomable reasons.
You might almost except the subject of Into the Wild to be a non-issue. Consider the verbiage printed on the cover of the paperback edition(s):
In April 1992 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…
Doesn’t that sound to you like a tasteless joke? The first two sentences are delivered with such gravitas, but the last turns it into a farcical story; it’s such an inglorious ending to a potentially glorious story that one can’t help but crack the book open and begin.
I hope I am not spoiling too much when I say that the cover copy is a pretty accurate summary of what goes on in the book.
It’s important to note that Into the Wild was borne out of Krakauer’s desire to investigate, rewrite, and clarify an article he wrote for Outside magazine shortly after the body of Chris McCandless was found. As you will learn in this book, the original article contained a number of inaccuracies and rushed judgments. Amazingly, you will find that this exact same phenomenon applies to Into Thin Air as well. Apropos of nothing, I would posit that Krakauer writes better books than he does magazine articles.
Here’s the basics of Chris McCandless’ story: he was a middle-class child (one of two), born to super-smart but demanding parents. By the time he graduated college, he was headstrong, thought his parents were total losers, was enamored of Thoreau and Jack London, and had extraordinarily extra feet. After giving his life savings to OXFAM, he hitch-hiked around the country, ending up in Mexico and finally in Alaska, where he died.
Here’s the complaints with Chris McCandless’ story, especially those which arose after initial news of his death: he was an arrogant kid who thought he was invincible. He went into the Alaskan wilderness with a peashooter (.22 calibre rifle), a bag of rice, K-Mart hiking boots, and a critically-underdeveloped knowledge of survival knowledge. No wonder he died, wrote legions of eye-rolling readers, once the story of McCandless’ inglorious death by starvation had been reported by the media and Krakauer’s article in Outside.
Here’s the way in which a sympathetic Krakauer tries to paint McCandless as a much more noble figure: from the very beginning, Krakauer takes great pains to express just how smart Chris was, emphasizing his grades, his love of reading, his general intellect, and his knowledge of Thoreau and other Literature-with-a-capital-L, as though that somehow negates his ignorance when it comes to intrapersonal relationships or common sense. Also, apparently, Chris was a genuinely nice boy/man, except when he was being a complete and utter dick to his family, who loved him most2. Finally, Krakauer, whose own flights of death-defying fancy are chronicled more thoroughly in Into Thin Air, commiserates with McCandless’ desire to face the undiscovered frontier, brave the elements, and achieve things all by his lonesome; in doing so, he tells numerous stories not only of his own mountain-climbing expeditions, but also of McCandless’ historical parallels throughout the ages, be they crazynuts veterans or simply wanderlusting students. This, if you are like me, does little but spread one’s scorn out over a wider assortment of characters.
As you might be able to tell from the way the book begins with Chris’ death, the actual story of his four-month walkabout is of little narrative consequence, even though that’s more or less all the movie version covered. There’s actually more historical tales and personal recollections in Krakauer’s book than there is information about McCandless’ own travels. This is, in part, because McCandless seems a rank hypocrite (and yes, idiot) in retrospect. When he finally abandons his car, he burns all his cash in a pile, likely glorying all the while in his escape from the crushing weight of worldly concerns like finances……. until later, when he has to work at McDonalds in order to earn money to buy food and supplies. Why not just keep the money you had? Because that wouldn’t be rebellious enough, would it?
Or take an example that Krakauer himself mentions: McCandless’ continued fascination with Jack London (he who wrote White Fang and other Alaskan stories) as an adventure hero is belied by the fact that London was a wealthy writer with limited Alaskan experience, grown fat and lazy from the proceeds of his imagination.
Finally, take the fact that McCandless, who all along wanted to do everything independently, relied upon the help and charity of strangers almost constantly. Though he apparently relished the idea of braving the Alaskan wilderness with only a bag of rice and a made-up name (“Alexander Supertramp”), it took only the fear of death for him to write a desperate note on the door of his makeshift shelter, begging for help and scared out of his wits. So mortality became a great equalizer for a man who, Krakauer either admits of fails to disprove, suffered greatly from his own inconsistent ideals3, his own willful ignorance, his own astounding arrogance, and his selectively hateful nature (for anything which didn’t immediately jive with his hippie-cum-adventurer mentality, his own family included).
Chris McCandless, whether you sympathize with his restless spirit or not, was a cocky kid, and he bore the terrible consequences of his own foolhardiness. I don’t think there is a greater moral puzzle to be found here—no real irony, no burning questions about his motives. Certainly, Krakauer tries to write about these things anyway: like much of his writing, Into the Wild serves to qualify Krakauer’s only restless spirit by analyzing the inimitable drive, passion, and sometimes foolishness of others. Krakauer, an adventurer and climber, sympathizes with McCandless, even though Krakauer at his most chimerical was exponentially more prepared, realistic, and grounded that McCandless ever appeared to be.
But I’ve lingered far too long on the subject of the book and not the book itself, which is something of a hoary first attempt for Krakauer (whose writing, it must be said, seems to improve with each publication). His pressing desire to relate Chris McCandless’ life to his own results in some extended flashbacks of Krakauer as a young man, some of which go on for so long that you have forgotten what you are actually reading. Is this really a chronicle of Chris McCandless, or is it Krakauer’s own biography told through a lens of association?
Either way, it’s a passable book, though if you’re anything like me, McCandless is an infinitely frustrating protagonist. Into Thin Air is a better narrative, and Under the Banner of Heaven is better journalism.
- I say introduced because he seemed to intuit that few people, the overachievers excluded, had actually bothered to read the book over the summer[↩]
- Predictably, Chris’ relationship with his parents was not one of abuse or mayhem, but more the sort of stilted relationship that comes with genius parents and high expectations…. as well as the eventual disclosure of infidelity.[↩]
- Or more accurately, his ideals were incompatible with his merits[↩]