By Elizabeth Gilbert
Viking, 268 pp., $24.95
You are stupid," Eustace Robinson Conway III once said to Eustace Robinson Conway IV. "I've never met a child more dimwitted. I don't know how I could have sired so idiotic a son. ... I believe you are simply incompetent and will never learn anything."
Young Eustace "stupid"? Yes but only according to the impossible demands laid out by "Big Eustace" (Ph.D., M.I.T., chemical engineering). The boy, age 2, still in his highchair, could not work the jigsaw puzzle his father set before him.
Eustace "dimwitted"? Ugly word but yes, in this sense: The boy, in grade school, did have trouble with arithmetic. Or was the major trouble schoolwork, home, homework? Regular, four-hour browbeat-ings by his father in the kitchen, shades drawn, doors shut, nightmare material. "Night after night," "Little Eustace" remembers, "week after week, month after month, year after year, it was as if my father would cut my legs off. Then he'd cut off the stumps where the legs had been. Then he'd cut off my arms. Then he would run the sword through my body."
But "Little Eustace" ... "incompetent"? No. By age 7, the boy could throw a knife and that knife could nail a chipmunk to a tree. By age 10, he could kill a running squirrel at 50 feet with a bow and arrow. By age 12, he could name every last limb and leaf, every songbird and its song in the woods outside his suburban North Carolina home ... detect the hiss of his beloved turtles sliding head and legs inside their shells ... build his own teepee. And by age 17, the year 1977, he could leave home finally free and take to the hills -- literally.
He lived alone. He sewed his own clothes. He hunted with a blowgun. He ate small game. He whittled bowls and plates out of wood and polished them with beaver fat. He made water jugs from the clay in creeks. He wove rope out of bark and his own hair. He split oakwood to weave into baskets. His shirt, he once told some drug dealers -- Tompkins Square Park, New York City ("Yo, man! It's Davy Fuckin' Crockett!") -- was made out of deerhide, a deer he'd shot with a musket, the hide softened with the animal's brains, the shirt stitched using sinew from the deer's spine.
That's nothing. Consider the time Eustace took down an eight-point buck, "his winter deer." He shot the animal, but the deer didn't die, so Eustace ran a knife into its jugular. The deer scrambled to its feet, so Eustace locked onto its antlers. Then he wrestled it. Then he sliced open some more arteries and veins and finally its windpipe until he had its head to the ground. Then he suffocated it. Then he "plunged his hands into the animal's neck and smeared the blood all over his own face, weeping and laughing and offering up an ecstatic prayer of thanksgiving to the universe for the magnificent phenomenon of this creature who had so valiantly sacrificed its life to sustain his own."
Meanwhile, you ... you make it a point never to order veal. You turn off the tap while brushing your teeth. You think you know an ax from an adz. But chances are good, according to Eustace the Fourth, you don't know squat about the nature of things or the things of nature, how far you've got from the natural order, your place in or out of it. You're one of a herd, and the herd's asleep. Otherwise, you could, like Eustace, learn to walk the entire Appalachian Trail subsisting solely on berries or game, and you'd rest fine. Ride cross-country on horseback, keep your horse healthy, meet Eustace's record time. Establish a 1,000-acre working farm/woodlands refuge in North Carolina and keep hungry developers out. Or simply survive -- no, invite -- the rigors and rightness of the natural world. Better that than the greater rigors, in the case of Eustace, of an absolutist, frigid-cold father and the equally unyielding philosophy of manhood as propounded by a maternal grandfather. And yet thrive -- as eco-man, as "Man of Destiny," in his mother's promising words, as inheritor of a latter-day "Manifest Destiny," in the words of Elizabeth Gilbert in The Last American Man, a man Gilbert's known for years and respects but examines for all his strengths and weaknesses.
Weakness one: the romance department, and if there's a woman out there (unlike the scads of women already in these pages) who can outmatch Eustace Conway's control-freak willful-mindedness, I'd like to meet her. So would "the last American man."
Weakness two: joy, the absence of it. I go with Gilbert and wonder if by some chance Eustace could quit the egocentric course he's on and just be.
So, Mr. Conway, wake us to the world we're asleep to but give yourself some slack, some privacy on some mountaintop if that's what you need and the peace that comes with it. Otherwise, these days you're acting, sounding more and more like your father. No fun in that, you know, and no wonder you've driven good people down and out of your jigsaw life.