You’ve probably never met anyone like Eustace Conway. The 42-year-old real-life hero of Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man makes his own clothes out of deerskin, lives on a thousand acres in the backwoods of North Carolina in the style of a 19th-century subsistence farmer, and believes he can save the nation single-handedly from the evils of modernity. He slept in a teepee for nearly 20 years, starting when he was fresh out of high school, before he finally built a roof over his head. He rode horseback across the country in 103 days, a record time. He hiked the Appalachian Trail at 19, subsisting entirely on what he could hunt and gather along the way. He used to tame his hair with a brush fashioned from the quills of a porcupine he killed and ate when he was near starvation. He can nail a raccoon in the dark with a single shot from an antique musket, skin a rabbit with a stone knife of his own manufacture, and make a meal from squirrel-head stew.
Then again, you might very well know a man exactly like Eustace Conway. A man who grew up in fear of his tyrannical, perfectionist father; whose own controlling behavior has driven away countless devoted girlfriends; whose single-minded pursuit of his uncompromising worldview has alienated his entire family; who, now middle-aged, finds himself living an emotionally barren life full of moral contradictions, alone with his own tremendous ego.
Sounds a bit more ordinary, doesn’t he?
Gilbert stumbled upon Conway in the course of her own quest for the romantic American frontier, a journey that took the aspiring writer to work on a Western ranch at the age of 22. “I wanted to learn the boundaries of my own resourcefulness, and these, I believed, I could learn only in a place like Wyoming. . . . I went to Wyoming, in other words, to make a man of myself.” In the process, Gilbert, now 32, fell in with another wannabe cowboy who happened to be Eustace’s brother. And when she was introduced to Eustace, she became enchanted with his primitive lifestyle, his idealistic efforts to educate schoolchildren about alternatives to their pre-processed suburban lives, his unadulterated manliness.
Gilbert is not the first journalist to fall in love with the raw material of Eustace Conway. His exploits have been chronicled in dozens of newspaper and magazine articles; such self-promotion is central to his environmental proselytizing. But she is an intelligent enough writer to put a hypnotic spin on Conway’s significance. She links Conway’s exploits with the nutty tradition of American utopian communities, and then goes on to make a case for him as a sort of reflection of the national spirit. “The history of Eustace Conway is the history of man’s progress on the North American continent,” she ventures boldly toward the end of the book. “He evolves before our eyes. He improves and expands and improves and expands because he is so clever and so resourceful that he cannot help himself. . . . He is unstoppable. And we are also unstoppable.”
Of course, a lot gets mowed over by that kind of unstoppability, and Gilbert, to her credit, takes us at least partway behind the curtain of Conway’s mountain-man act. She’s able to see through some of his bullshit because she’s a born showman herself: Although she’s published a novel (Stern Men) and a short-story collection, perhaps her most famous piece of writing is an article for GQ about her stint as a wisecracking, butt-shaking bartender at Coyote Ugly in the East Village (it was later turned into a movie). A more recent piece for the magazine, where she is a writer at large, had her trying to pass as a man for a week. She doesn’t shrink from making herself part of the story here, as well.
And Conway didn’t hold anything back from her. He agreed, for a price—half of Gilbert’s profits from the book—to give her unrestricted access to his diaries, his letters, his home. She tracked down his ex-girlfriends from 20 years ago, worked 12-hour days building a cabin one summer under the unforgiving lash of his tongue, and hung out with the emotional terrorist who is his father, a man with a penchant for undercutting his son’s every ambition. The portrait that she puts together doesn’t leave out the ugly bits.
But Gilbert is so invested in being one of the boys, so intent on proving her own testosterone toughness (which comes in an attractively gamine package), that she sometimes seems unable to follow her own observations to their logical conclusions. She relates story after story of Conway humiliating the women he claims to love, as well as the apprentices who train at his wilderness retreat, but she can never relinquish her breezy tone. Describing an encounter with a young man who is clumsily plowing one of Conway’s fields with a mule team, Gilbert writes: “Around this time of evening, it’s pretty obvious that what Eustace really wants to do is line up the lot of us in a neat row and bitch-slap some sense into our stupid heads.” Now there’s a real man for you.
Gilbert has crafted an engaging and revealing book, filled with solid research. The question is, does she realize how chilling her portrayal of our national masculine ideal is? Or how commonplace her hero’s anger and rigidity appear once the buckskin is peeled away? If this is what passes for a man in America, Eustace Conway isn’t the last one. Not by a long shot.