Eustace Conway is handsome, brilliant, charismatic. He owns his own valley in North Carolina. He's a trendsetter and a newsmaker. He even has a conscience. So why can't he keep a girlfriend? You'll find out in Elizabeth Gilbert's The Last American Man, an intriguing profile of the 21st century's answer to Davy Crockett. Frontiers aren't for everyone, though they linger in America's collective imagination. Boys these days are more likely to test their manhood in a mall than in the woods. Into this rather sad picture of diminished horizons enters Eustace Conway. Conway leaves his comfortable suburban home at 17 and disappears into the woods, only to reappear as a sort of eco-Messiah, with a message that yes, there is a better way to live than on the grid prescribed by modern-day America.
Soon Conway is hiking the Appalachian Trail, crossing the United States on horseback and buying up unspoiled land in North Carolina to establish his utopian Turtle Island, a sanctuary where visitors and apprentices can study Conway's alternative lifestyle one that's closely based on Native American traditions of hunting, gathering and the resourceful use of natural materials.
The word "biography" has such a dusty sound to it that I hesitate to apply it to this book. Gilbert does, indeed, chronicle Conway's life from beginning to end, but her account is more than fact; it's great entertainment. Gilbert is a gifted storyteller. She also has the perfect subject: a 21st century pioneer with the wanderlust of Deerslayer and the shrewdness of Daniel Boone. Through Conway, Gilbert examines the difficulty of coming into an American manhood in a world without frontiers. While she's at it, she chronicles the history of utopias in America both those that succeeded and those that failed. Gilbert doesn't mince Conway's shortcomings a difficult relationship with his father; an inflexibility that makes lasting relationships with women impossible; his phenomenal workaholism; his Messianic complex. Even Conway's flaws are part of the picture Gilbert's portrait of an American man of destiny, perhaps the last.
Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.