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  • Writer's pictureAlanna Grayce

The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

So, I didn't even think about this when I chose this book as the second in our book club series- but, I was researching and just kind of seeing what other people had written or said about it and I came across another book club, based in Boston, who also read The Last American Man as a follow up to Wild. I was like oh that’s crazy no way!! What a coinkydink!

But I’m like ok it makes sense, because they’re both about being in the wild and connection to nature and all that good stuff. HOWEVER, I continued reading on this particular site and it said that as Wild was an exploration of Cheryl Strayed’s image of herself and her womanhood and strength and identity in femininity, The Last American Man is very much an examination of American masculinity through the lens of Eustace Conway’s life. How crazy is that, that I essentially paired them on accident but they are so related in that way??

Anyway, let's get into it.

The Last American Man is almost definitely my most earmarked book of them all. More so than Wild, more so than Hemingway’s a moveable feast, more so than text books even (let's be honest I barely open my text books). This book moved me in such a visceral way, even thinking about it brings this joy but also this sense of inspiration and desire for change.

Elizabeth Gilbert wrote this book, a memoir, in a way, to share the absolutely true story of Eustace Conway in context to who he is as a person, the world he grew up in, and the world we reside in now. In ways he is poised as this mythical creature, who challenges everything he sees. He especially challenges ideals of modernity and masculinity, though. She also, however, highlights his inevitable humanity, and does not sugar coat his flaws, which is appreciated. Too often a memoir will ignore even the most obvious flaws of it's subject. Not here.

Eustace Conway’s absolutely unbelievable life- from riding a horse cross country in just over 100 days to founding and living solely inside of a primitive camp in the North Carolina mountains… to dumpster diving for groceries and starring on a television show- his life is this enigma. He is an enigma. And Elizabeth illustrates how he represents this ideal of masculinity, but not in the way you might imagine.

Eustace is not a burly caricature of a logger mountain man, with big broad shoulders and a clean cut beard that he trims with his axe every morning. Eustace looks rather like a Willy Nelson kind of hippy, with shaggy long hair that he braids sometimes. He is thin and wiry, but that is not to say he’s not strong. He’s just not that image of “MASCULINE” that we have been fed and coerced into believing in by the media.

Beyond his looks, though, and into who he is- Eustace is really nothing of the toxic version of masculinity that we imagine. He writes poetry for his lovers- of which, there have been quite a few, and each seems to take a big chunk of his heart with them when they inevitably leave. He doesn’t love them and leave them- he says that he wants nothing more than to have a partner, and to be loved and in love. His romanticism... gah, it's endearing, and it's heartbreaking. His lovers are as varied as you might expect, too, and they all adore him. In fact, many of them still say after the fact how much they loved and still love him. They just find him impossible to live with because he’s incredibly particular… and honestly going from modern life to a primitive camp has got to be a huge shock.

Eustace cares for animals dearly, and he worships the earth and nature and everything it gives us with reverence and thanksgiving. He doesn’t ever take more than he needs, and I would argue that his most toxic traits come from his specific ideas of what he believes his perfect wife to be- and thus one of the reasons he can’t keep a lover- and how frustrated he gets when people don’t respond well to his style of communication. He seems to be very very set in certain ways, and has difficulty budging on those. But then, in many ways, he is very open to collaboration... I think he picks and chooses where to give room, but he does not always choose correctly, you know?

All of this leads me to the question: Why is this important? Why is his masculinity the main question here? Not his activism, or his choice to build and live in a primitive camp, or even his choice to feed himself with dumpster fruits and vegetables when his provisions weren’t quite enough.

I think that his masculinity is the root here because in this world of toxic images, both of men and women- we have this perception of who a man should be. How he should look, how he should act. In many ways our culture as humans has grown up with that, from the idea that a man should be the warrior or the hunter to the images of rough and tumble cowboys or of brave soldiers on the battle field. I think every child grows up with some image in their mind of what they want to be, and how they see themselves represented in popular culture certainly reflects that. For children and young adults, then, and truly whoever reads this book- to have this entirely different image of what and who a manly man can be- that’s revolutionary, if you think about it. A man who builds cabins from logs he felled, with his own two hands? A man who then lays in those cabins with his lady love and reads her beautiful poetry that he wrote just for her? A man who grows his food and reveres the ground that produced it.. And who weeps openly for his dying horse and the earth. That is kind of unheard of guys. It's literally fairytale stuff.

This book, though, it really contextualizes this man that could be revered as this untouchable enigma, if you wanted to place him on that pedestal. But, at the same time it does place him on a pedestal: as a challenger of who we expect men to be and what we expect of the modern person in general, I think. That dichotomy between his reality and his mythos, that is what makes this book so intriguing.

The book would be fascinating anyway, I would say, because Eustace himself is an incredibly interesting and active man with so many adventures under his belt. I would argue though that Elizabeth Gilbert’s approach of him, with reverence but also reality- that dichotomy makes the book even better.

A few of my favorite pages:

95, 174, 64, 258

I wrote this episode purposefully, in such a way that while I discuss Eustace for who he is and the ways he challenges our perceptions of masculinity in modernity, you are still encouraged to read the book. I thought over last week’s episode (Wild), and while I’m happy with the way wrote and recorded it, it didn’t feel quite as appropriate here. Not that Cheryl’s story doesn’t deserve to be read just as much as Eustace’s, but that the mysticism of Eustace befits a more vague approach than the straightforward nature of Cheryl.

Ok, now go read this book.

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