Wednesday, August 28, 2013

'Nuff Read: The Last American Man

The most difficult aspect of my recent trip to Monterrey, Mexico, was finding good reading material in English during the time I was there. I came prepared with many books (Beowulf, Oh, Pioneer!, The Magdalena) for the trip, finished them more quickly than anticipated (a good thing), but was then stuck for seven days with little to read but old copies of Entertainment Weekly and The National Enquirer (normally not a bad thing--but seven days!?).

When we did make it back to Houston, Texas, I was able to reconnect with Barnes and Noble and pick up a couple books for the last few nights away from home as well as the flight back. While the purchase of Wendall Berry's latest collection of poetry was not a surprise, my selection of a book by the author of Eat, Pray, Love was. At least to me.

Displayed on the "Employee's Picks" shelf, the cover of The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert consists of the author's name as well as that of the recognizable bestseller, the book's title, an image of a bearded, smiling man (who looks surprisingly like a member of the Duck Dynasty hillbilly brood), and a blurb of recommendation. It was the blurb that drew a deeper consideration for possible purchase as it compares this book very favorably to Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, a book I both teach and greatly appreciate. Into the Wild also serves as a good (and accessible to many readers) object of comparison when reviewing The Last American Man.

As noted on the paperback edition's back cover, the book's subject Eustance Conway, "at the age of seventeen... left his suburban existence to live in the wild--thirty years later, he's still there." The Last American Man serves as both a biography of Constance as well as a vehicle for Gilbert to deconstruct and analyze just how her subject's experiences fit in with the changing archetype of the American male. Though that brief description sounds heady and academic, Gilbert's style is informal and entertaining as she employs a diction that is demotic and reflective of her subject's down-to-earth nature. Structurally, Gilbert's book, like Krakauer's, is tightly composed and each chapter is set up by a researched epigram or quote that sets the direction the chapter will take for the reader.

Unlike Krakauer as character and writer of Into the Wild, Gilbert addresses the impact of her subject's patriarchal family (Daddy) issues not as an insider, but as one who has clearly ascertained certain accepted understandings as to the impact father's have on their sons. Gilbert's feminine perspective is interesting as she is honest and surprisingly impartial--on some level her writing suggests that she knows Constance is himself a flawed masculine model. These psychological underpinnings do not however diminish the "manliness" of her subject and, in fact, in some ways simply add to his attractiveness as a man, model, and "character." American men are nothing if not delusional regarding their own significance, while being occasionally oblivious to their own roles in poor relationships with others.

I am glad to report that by nearly prejudging a book based upon my own preconceived notions of it (as a result of my dislike fro the Julia Roberts film adaptation of Gilbert's successful novel), I nearly missed out on a rather enjoyable reading experience. The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert offers a welcome and accessible voice to a non-fiction sub genre exploring American masculinity that is welcome and above all entertaining.

Happy reading!

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