An absorbing, sometimes strange profile of the last of the back-to-the-landers, if not the last “real” man.
In this rare instance of a magazine-article-turned-book that works, novelist Gilbert (Stern Men, 2000) expands a GQ feature on latter-day mountain man Eustace Conway to address a range of cultural-historical topics, blending bookishness with roll-in-the-dirt intrepidity. To be sure, Conway is a strange bird: a teenaged runaway from the home of a perfectionist, uncommunicative father and apparently repressed mother who spent 17 years living in a tepee, eating squirrel soup, and fending for himself in the wilderness, he’s the living embodiment of Robert Bly’s Iron John ideal—except he’s the real thing, and not just another urban wannabe. A bundle of contradictions, Conway has renounced most aspects of American consumerism while amassing a backwoods empire of more than a thousand acres in the North Carolina mountains that he calls Turtle Island, a fleet of battered trucks, and a small army of followers, nine out of ten of whom do not long endure his weird boot-camp regime. Conway’s “coolest adventure,” one that gained him national media coverage, was a cross-country trip on horseback that took him to Indian reservations, black and Chicano ghettoes, and well-groomed suburbs alike. The author is no latecomer to Conway’s story; she first got to know about him more than a decade ago, when she cowboyed with his brother in Wyoming. She excels at capturing Conway’s inflexibility and inability to keep friends, his “man of destiny” monomania, and his superbly honed, altogether rare skills. Though Gilbert clearly admires Conway, she writes of him with complexity and nuance: “It can be mortifying to learn that life at Turtle Island is grueling and that Eustace is another flawed human being, with his own teeming brew of unanswered questions.”
Backing her on-the-ground account with asides on communal movements, idealistic failures, and our deeply flawed culture, Gilbert delivers a first-rate work of reportage.