In this rousing examination of contemporary American male identity, acclaimed author and journalist Elizabeth Gilbert explores the fascinating true story of Eustace Conway. In 1977, at the age of seventeen, Conway left his family’s comfortable suburban home to move to the Appalachian Mountains. For more than two decades he has lived there, making fire with sticks, wearing skins from animals he has trapped, and trying to convince Americans to give up their materialistic lifestyles and return with him back to nature. To Gilbert, Conway’s mythical character challenges all our assumptions about what it is to be a modern man in America; he is a symbol of much we feel how our men should be, but rarely are.
“Wickedly well-written…Without compromising her obvious admiration, Ms. Gilbert presents a warts-and-all portrait of Mr. Conway and a sophisticated understanding of why those warts are only natural…. A vigorous, engaging book.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Gilbert artfully taps into this unique life to create a fascinating, deeply thought-out and anthralling narrative.” —Los Angeles Times
“A vivid, nuanced portrait of an endlessly complicated man.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“The Last American Man relates the riveting story of Conway’s odyssey from a child of affluent parents, to mountain man, to the owner of 1,000 acres of woods and fields in western North Carolina. Gilbert sees in Conway’s life a parable for our time, a way of capturing how our culture is sapping us of all that is vital.” —Chicago Tribune
“There are so many reasons to read this book. Read it for the portrait of a man who isn’t divorced from the land below and the sky above. Read it to watch his youthful ambitions fade into tired gasps. Read it to see how Gilbert gets at her subject without ever stabbing him in the back.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Conway is a character almost too goofd to believe…In Gilbert, he may have found the perfect writer to tell his story…from Conway’s life, Gilbert takes off on delightful tangents about the nature of manhood, the appeal of utopian communities, the history of the frontier and the lingering myth of the frontiersman. The subject becomes much broader than one man’s life. It’s about what has been lost with progress, and what can be reclaimed.” —The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“An important book, and well-wrought to boot…Gilbert just plain catches him: It is hard to imagine a deeper, more insightful portrait…her book is wise and knowing.” —Men’s Journal
In the first chapter of The Last American Man you paint a very vivid picture of Eustace Conway on the streets of New York City. Can you talk a bit about this first meeting and your first impressions of the so-called “Last American Man.”
He was one of the most impressive people I’d ever experienced—I almost felt bruised after encountering him; he left that deep an impression. He was so wild and rough and awake, compared to most people in the world. (Well, in our world, anyhow.) I think I would have been fascinated by him in any setting, but the ironist in me was delighted and struck by the contradictions of seeing this real woodsman in buckskins walking around the streets of Manhattan. What was especially useful about that trip to NYC, though, was seeing the effect he had on other people, as well. It was very confirming for me to realize, “Hey—I’m not the only person fascinated by this guy—every drug dealer, taxi driver and cop is interested in him, too.” This made it easier for me to take the leap to write the book, thinking it might have a wider audience.
Eustace is portrayed as being tyrannical, unforgiving, and consistently disappointed by those around him. What was it like to write about such a person?
This is all true, but I also wanted to depict the other side of him — heroic, sensitive, brilliant and wounded. I was concerned by the fact that most people who deal with Eustace come away with one of two impressions—either he’s a larger-than-life hero, or he’s a narcissitic fraud. I don’t think he’s either, although he has elements of both. I think his internal reality is a much more complex picture, and that’s the picture I wanted to create. I was afraid, honestly, of what another writer might have done to him—either elevated him to some unrealistic god-like status, or thrilled to tear him apart and “expose” him. In the end, I was less interested in pointing out his flaws and contradictions just for the sake of undoing a man in public, than in studying what Eustace’s complex character has to show us about all of us, about our ideas and dreams of masculinity, about the risks and rewards of continuing to rely on iconic ideas to define ourselves. In fact, he was pretty easy to work with (for me, at least) once he had taken this on—he showed great courage in allowing me to investigate every aspect of his nature—even the pricklier parts.
Eustace is still looking for a wife – the woman who will allow him to fulfill his vision of a a utopian community. Do you think he’ll ever find her? Does she even exist?
I think the person he’s going to need to find first is himself—only after a real examination into his own psyche will he be in any way ready to incorporate a partner into his life in a healthy way, dropping all his romantic ideals and learning how to be with a real person. I see him doing more and more of this self-examination (even working on the book was a rare journey for him into the realm of self-analysis; and he read it with courage, acknowledging and accepting his own flaws) and it gives me hope to think that, as he learns more of himself, he’ll be less demanding of others. And again—I can’t help think this is a lesson for many of us.
Eustace set out trying to save America, but after more than twenty years of trying even he is starting to accept it may not be possible. How has this realization changed Eustace’s message?
Now his message is more about awakening—trying to reach people on a one-on-one level to encourage them to take on a consciousness about their lives and their choice, challenging people to ask of themselves, “Do I really need to buy all these consumer goods that I’m being told will make me happy? Do I really need to consume so many resources? Do I really need to lead this lifestyle that’s making me ill, keeping me in debt, destroying my family and devouring the environment? Can I eliminate things from my life instead of constantly being trapped in the vicious, expensive sport of collecting more and more stuff? Is there another, more gentle, more free, more conscious way in which I can live? Or do I really have to spend my life attached to Walmart with an umbilical cord?” Eustace now sees himself more as a living challenge to mainstream America’s values, trying to help people recognize that, while they may not need to move in the woods and eat possum, they can change some aspects of their lifestyles in recognition of the reality that the way the average 21rst Century American consumer lives is soulless, unhealthy, unnatural and inarguably unsustainable.
What do you see as being Eustace’s biggest gift to contemporary America?
The way he snaps his fingers in our faces, trying to wake us up to the reality of our lives and to the possibility of change, trying to teach and inspire—and he’s very good at that. Also, it’s always nice to have an old-fashioned adventure hero around the woods.
What are you working on now?
I’m going to leave the country for a year, starting in September, to travel around the world and write about my experience—in many ways inspired by Eustace’s daring adventures, I’ve decided to have a few of my own…