It’s easy to write off one author based on a best-seller. Call it jealousy, call it high-end literary disdain, call it whatever you want, but it’s easy to give in to the impulse to distrust something once it’s become popular. This indeed was my reaction to the author Elizabeth Gilbert, who I (as many others) first encountered by way of her memoir-cum-chick-lit classic Eat, Pray, Love. I read her because I felt I had to have hard facts to back up my loathing, and I found facts in spades: her self-indulgent pity, her defensive arguments about the validity of eating pasta and practicing yoga and falling head over heels in love after too much heartache. I wrote her off, and so did many other readers, as fluffy and inconsequential, someone who’d rather gaze at her navel than investigate and report.
But then I read Committed, her follow-up and improvement on Eat, Pray, Love, a thoughtful interrogation of marriage across cultures. I devoured her lectures on Ted Talks as well as her earlier long-form stories on the Coyote Ugly Saloon and La Grande Randonnée, a dream vacation I hope to take one day. In building backwards from Eat, Pray, Love, I discovered just how major an anomaly that book has become. Gilbert had made her career in journalism writing for GQ, writing for a certain kind of high-brow men’s journalism—she hardly seems the type to fall over at the chance to eat spaghetti and meditate in an ashram. (And hardly someone who could only be played by that grande dame of casually girlish womanhood, Julia Roberts.)
The strain throughout all of Gilbert’s writing, the one that really defines her style and substance, is the exploration of wanderlust. Nowhere is this clearer or more deliciously readable than in The Last American Man, Gilbert’s portrait of Eustace Conway. When you first learn that Conway is casually greeted and frequently referred to as “Davy Fuckin’ Crockett,” you know you’re far away from Italy, India, and Indonesia. Conway wears buckskin clothes and carries a bowie knife; he has trained himself to hunt, fish, and live off the land. He has accumulated over 1,000 acres of pristine wilderness to call his own, a sanctuary for a natural, unadorned life. You could call it an affect, except he puts his whole heart and body into committing to this way of life. He is the anti-Gilbert; a journeyman who lives for the journey itself. Gilbert (and the reader) are entranced by his story, but also quietly concerned about its cost. Conway is wildly charismatic and friendly, and Gilbert’s totally charmed by him. Yet even when he gives her a big hug of welcome, she stops to think, “This guy likes me, but he doesn’t really need me.” Meeting a figure who is genuinely impersonal, even as he pushes himself towards physical, intellectual, and moral perfection, poses a quandary for the reader. Given how impassioned he is, isn’t it a waste for Conway to be so alone? Where is his congregation, his family, his perfect partner?
The problem, Gilbert illuminates, isn’t that Eustace Conway needs to settle down. It’s that settling down would fundamentally change who he is. Gilbert sketches a droll personal profile for him that captures this quandary perfectly:
“Lonely heart who makes fire with two sticks, eats squirrel brains, quotes Faulkner, crosses continents on foot or horseback, understands Navajo jokes, swings through trees during lightning storms, kayaks across the Arctic, builds homes without the use of nails, climbs sheer cliffs, makes honey and envisions altering the very destiny of humankind SEEKS SAME. SERIOUS INQUIRIES ONLY.”
She adores his commitment to his cause, and so do we, and unfortunately that means that to stay adored, he must stay solo. If her memoir had instead been titled Eat, Pray, Live this may well have been our final impression of Gilbert as well. Gilbert’s revised memoir, ending with self-reliance instead of new found romance, would have been a radical portrait of the cost that people must pay to self-actualize and to reach their fullest potential. But instead, the first two parts only serve to enable the third; Gilbert rides off into the sunset of literary fame with her dreamy Brazilian husband, carried on the back of her blockbuster hit, while Eustace Conway, the luminous and lonely figure of her writing past, continues his journey on Turtle Island. Perhaps if The Last American Man had been her big hit, Gilbert would’ve stayed behind, too.