The Measure of a Moneyless Man

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In Mark Sundeen’s latest book, The Man Who Quit Money, we meet Daniel Suelo, a man who has chosen to live a radically austere life.

Throughout his writing, Mark Sundeen seeks out what makes a Man of men, particularly, as he puts it, “in this age of talking toasters and the programmable toothbrush.” His essays, articles, and books to date are populated by manifestations of romantic super-male types—swashbucklers, wanderers, political crusaders, and stupid-brave adventurers—backdropped by the comedy of now. Accordingly, in his newest work, The Man Who Quit Money, Sundeen has ferreted from the caves of the Utah desert this biography of a bum.

Diverging from the canon of books about great men, this one fleshes out the story of Daniel Suelo, who considered the state of the world and his place in it and imposed extreme austerity measures upon himself. Over a decade ago, at the peak of the U.S.’s “affluenza,” Sundeen’s current candidate for model male-dom deposited his last thirty bucks in a phone booth and broke with the capitalist system. He doesn’t use money, doesn’t barter if he can help it, doesn’t even accept coerced charity. Instead, Suelo subsists on excess, unwanted goods—not excluding roadkill, and that which is freely given. As such, Daniel Suelo is a veritable hobo-guru: a trash-scavenging, train-jumping, locust-and-wild-honey-eating freegan prophet for the Occupy era.

While not heroic in the glorious vein of mainstream biography subjects whose ships have docked, or even Sundeen’s bawdy machos of the Hemingway ilk, historical precedence abounds for the physically and spiritually enlightened as the true über-man. Revered beggars span the holy spectrum of ancient faiths from Hindu sadhus and Buddhist bhikkus, to Muslim fakirs and Sufi dervishes. Siddhartha sought and found enlightenment with little more than a begging bowl. And of course Jesus lived among the poor. “If you want to be perfect,” challenges Mathew 19:21, “go, sell your possessions and give to the poor.” But really, who wants to be perfect?

In the U.S., top of the global food chain, capitalism trumps asceticism. There is no such thing as an American sadhu. Poverty—even when it asks nothing in return for its presence—is not holy, but wholly cringe-worthy. Even Sundeen, whose early writing career required him to live on less than $5 a day, approaches Suelo with something akin to the shallow breathing that keeps out stink:

The sight of his teeth, dark and crooked, rotting right there in his mouth—it chilled me. As much as I supported a person’s right to voluntary poverty, here at the height of America’s greatest prosperity, I drew the line at bad teeth. I should not be forced to look at such a sorry mouth. The sight made me ashamed—of my own excellent dental condition, my disposable income, my rental property—as if he had accused me directly. My shame made me mad. It was a free country, I concluded, and Suelo had every right to sleep in the dirt and lasso grasshoppers or whatever, but how dare he sit in judgment of me?

It is this same knee-jerk aversion, to questionable hygiene and the suggestion of a moral hierarchy, which initially repels the reader—or this reader, anyway—from a book like this. For post-boomers, this aversion is exacerbated by the great hippie-hypocrisy: the flower-powered counter-culture that allegedly dropped out and tuned in but now drives Volvos. Today, those of us who flirt with poverty are generally gambling for big returns. To assuage our guilt, we freecycle, buy and compost organic, and husband our urban fowl. But full-out renunciation, even for the public good, runs contrary to the American conviction, however deluded, of just deserts. In America, renunciation breaks the rules, but, as everyone evicted from Zuccotti Park or bludgeoned at Berkeley or just steamed in-between knows, the rules require breaking. For this, we need a new super-man (of any gender), even if we have to look in the dumpster to find him.

Fortunately, Mark Sundeen has done the real dirty work for us. In this book he tracks down Suelo, and, swallowing his acknowledged distaste, sets out to understand the process and logic behind a money-free lifestyle while tracing the spiritual, psychological, physical, and philosophical quest that led this particular man to throw over our society’s arguably counterfeit-yet-prevailing faith in money, or, more precisely, in debt.

In the process, Sundeen dabbles as a devotee, sipping Suelo’s rustic infusions of juniper and wild grasses, performing Qiqong poses on the ledge of Suelo’s squat, joining him on dumpster-diving expeditions, and performing manual labor for the pure gratification, not of pay, but of work itself. What he finds is not so distasteful after all. (Even expired fried chicken tastes better for being foraged for, apparently.) Rather, it’s admirable on many levels.

This is a nation that professes to be a Christian nation,” Suelo expounds to Sundeen one night in his cave. “And yet it’s basically illegal to live according to the teachings of Jesus.” The son of evangelical biblical literalists, Suelo has thought plenty about the teachings of Jesus, especially his Sermon on the Mount: Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in the barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. That and, as happens to most homeless people in America, he’s been arrested for squatting on public land.

Suelo’s path through the figurative and literal desert, though Sundeen traces its heroic trajectory with a bit much vigor, is not merely mystical. Among other virtues, he’s a model for extreme green living: Sundeen calculates Suelo’s carbon footprint at more or less that of an Ethiopian’s, or about one half of 1 percent of the average American’s. And rather than trap or hunt, Suelo prefers to eat what has been thrown away—40% of the food produced in America winds up in landfills, to absorb our burgeoning excess. And Suelo imagines that when he dies, his corpse will feed the coyotes, the ringtails, the mice: giving his all in return for all he has taken.

Fortunately for the reader skeptical of the efficacy of drop-out culture, fanaticism, or male heroics in general, Sundeen isn’t entirely sure Suelo isn’t insane, grilling the poor guy on hypocrisies and compromises that inevitably occur when one lives in society but according to one’s own rules.

Doesn’t Suelo owe something to the society he scavenges? Isn’t it humiliating? Isn’t it parasitic? Isn’t it extreme? Lonely? Difficult? Dangerous?!

And as Sundeen pokes and prods at this man, the reader find herself wondering, does Daniel Suelo’s radically austere life—a life that represents the far range of possibility—offer a plausible model for an alternative direction forward? Can America quit at least some of its money for the sake of itself?

Has Sundeen found in the caves of Utah a hero for our times?

Molly Beer is an essayist and travel writer. She is a regular contributor to Vela, and her essays have appeared in Salon, Guernica, Best Women’s Travel Writing 2012, Nimrod, and elsewhere. She is also the coauthor of the oral history Singing Out (Oxford University Press, 2010) and a former Colgate University Olive B. O’Connor Fellow in creative writing. She is currently at work on a memoir about navigating family in Mexico. More from this author →