506 of 563 people found the following review helpful
on November 3, 2008
While Gilbert's book is well written and she doesn't appear to pull her punches in criticizing Eustace Conway's flaws, the truth is that she has still left out important facts which show Conway's incredible hypocrisy. Anyone who has actually worked for the man (as I have) can tell you that the man seen by guests and the man seen by employees are totally different. The man does not practice what he preaches, and Gilbert's description of his interns' disillusionment hardly scratches the surface.
Eustace Conway is largely a fraud. While he may have practiced a low-impact, back-to-nature way of life as a teen (although when he drinks, Eustace admits many things that contradict this), Turtle Island today reflects very little of that. It is a non-productive "farm" covered by half-built cabins and strewn with rusty old cars and trailers (all exposed to the weather and leaking oil, coolant, etc. onto the soil). On any given day, you are more likely to hear the din of heavy deisel trucks and tractors, gas generators, electric power tools, chainsaws, and motorcycles than you are the natural sounds of the forest.
Here are some things Gilbert neglects to tell the reader:
--Livestock routinely die from neglect at TI. I watched one goat and her kid die from a bacterial infection, despite the intern's repeated warnings to Eustace of its condition. A former volunteer told me that he saw 3 other goats die in a similar manner during the previous months.
--Turtle Island DOES NOT produce most of its food. The majority comes from the neighbors' donations and farmer's markets. His vegetable gardens are usually so overgrown and neglected that it is difficult to tell what is food and what is not. (interns are not allowed to work on them except on their "off" days, and are routinely called away to do other jobs, such as road building and automobile maintenance)
--only 1 building--a small shack hardly tall enough to stand up in--was built without power tools. Every other building on Turtle Island has been built using chain saws, chop saws, nail guns, etc. Interns have to BEG to do things with primitive tools, because Eustace feels it takes too much time.
--Eustace treats the wood of his house and truck beds by painting them with a mixture of diesel and motor oil without any attempt to keep it from leaching into the soil.
--Interns spend the majority of their time fixing cars or building his new house as free labor, NOT learning primitive/sustainable living skills.
--Interns are seldom allowed to use simple tools, because Eustace feels they waste too much time. Any "primitive" living must be done on their own time. Eustace apparently doesn't even know how to properly sharpen a traditional cross-cut saw, because when a former volunteer asked him to teach the skill, Eustace gave up after a feeble attempt ant told him he should get a book on the subject.
--Horses are hardly used for anything other than buggy rides for tourists and occasionally plowing fields. They are show pieces. Eustace travels around on a motorcycle, and interns are expected to use 4x4 trucks, rather than walk.
--Eustace owns and regularly operates bulldozers, backhoes, and industrial-size dump trucks to clear forest for roads, buildings, and anything else he can think of.
--Eustace's home is surrounded by rusting trucks, cars, horse trailers, etc., most of which do not run or function at all. I counted 60 cars, not to mention the numerous trailers strewn throughout the surrounding forest. Piles of car batteries sit exposed and leaking in the forest amongst the cars behind the house.
Worst of all, INTERNS ARE EXPECTED TO LIE TO THE PUBLIC about these things in order to keep the illusion of "primitive living" at Turtle Island.
98 of 107 people found the following review helpful
on December 6, 2009
If Eustace Conway were the last American man, then fare thee well.
The man described by Ms Gilbert does not actually live primitively. Nor does he treat his animals (or wildlife) with respect. Nor does he show any compassion for his 'apprentices'. Even his primary expectation of his women is that they be beautiful.
Ms Gilbert writes that Conway lives 'mindfully', suggesting some Zen-like awareness on his part. Yet every novice zazen practitioner realizes the connection between true mindfulness and compassion. Ms Gilbert draws a portrait of a man without compassion.
Rather, he is pictured as a man of uncommon cruelty to both humans and others, a self-serving, self-promoting, self-described 'tortured' soul (lacking in paternal love). Oh, poor little unloved Eustace. He treats women with no respect and whines when they leave him. He experiences the AT by running across it as quickly as possible, leaving even his 'love' to catch him at camp late in the evenings. He runs horses to extremes for his own fun and because "that's what they are made for."
The first challenge in reading this book is to look past Ms Gilbert's own infatuation with her subject, and to ignore her comparisons of Conway to actual American pioneers like Daniel Boone and Davey Crockett. While she correctly recognizes the self-promotions of those men, she overlooks the thousands of others who moved west, pioneering, living 'primitively' because that's what it took, thousands who actually subsisted on their work's rewards, without self-promotion, without abusive relationships, without whining about daddy-love.
The ancestors of many of us, ancestors who struggled on the edges of a migrating population and diminishing wilderness, would not recognize Eustace Conway as one of their own. His own ego would have separated him from the serious business at-hand for those determined to be productive survivors.
All-in-all, The Last American Man is a mis-titled volume as emotionally unbalanced in its writing as its subject is in his living.
Read John Muir instead. Or just go sit under a tree.
103 of 116 people found the following review helpful
on June 18, 2002
Some years ago I read a magazine article about Eustace Conway and found his story captivating. Thus I was eager to read this book when I learned of its publication. I won't summarize his life - the Reviews above do so sufficiently to capture almost anyone's interest - but let me urge others who post reviews to remember you are reviewing the book, not Eustace Conway. I'd give him 5 stars - or 10 - for many qualties, but surely not for his troubled personal relationships. But Elizabeth Gilbert has done a wonderful - definitely 5 star - job in telling his story. She knows him very well (and clearly likes him), has talked at length with a great many of his friends and with his parents and siblings, and she loves the lifestyle ideal he seeks to propagate. She also writes in a wonderfully engaging, personal style. I can't imagine anyone who reads the first couple of pages not being totally hooked.
66 of 84 people found the following review helpful
on October 25, 2005
I am from NC and had a chance to meet Eustace at Merlefest, the bluegrass festival that he attends every year (In his teepee). He seemed very laid back, appreciative and polite in person. At the time, I had only heard of him through a few friends that read this book, but I had not read the book myself. I was extremely curious about his life and views after meeting him and read the book about him, "The Last American Man".
This is a great book, because it is the type of book that will stay with you a long time (I read it three months ago and I still think about it frequently). Eustace is a fascinating person, with views on materialism and nature that could only be considered eccentric in today's culture. He believes that most of us would be happier if we release ourselves from our materialism and live in nature, surving off our knowledge of the wilderness. He is amazing in that he starts his own camp, Turtle Island in which he teaches kids and adults who want to work with him about the art of surviving in the wilderness. His knowledge of hunting and farming is astounding. He often studied Native American cultures growing up (In Gaston County) and used this knowledge from very early on. He adopts many values and skills of the Native Americans and applies it. He also faces challenges that most of us just dream about (Hiking the entire AT, and riding a horse from coast to coast with his brother).
The book is not only a riveting story about Eustace's wanting to start a movement to Native American values, but also captures character flaws which often leave Eustace isolated and feeling unfufilled. He has difficulty having relationships with women, and getting along with those that work with him. Through it all, though, we are still in awe of his drive to take a stand and at least try to influence other people to adopt at least some of his values or lifestyle.
I am an avid outdoorsman, but would be the first to admit that it would be difficult to live and survive in the wilderness under primitive condidtions day after day. I suppose I, like most other people, have been spoiled with todays comforts. I know I will not adopt his lifestyle, but because of this book I go to bed at night sometimes just dreaming about what it would be like!
18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on February 2, 2012
Conway's story is interesting and controversial. I, however, cannot stand the way it was written. Gilbert shows major bias in every story about how AMAZING Conway is. It reminds me of when my Grandma talks about me. It is interesting that in one of the reviews Gilbert is compared to Krakuer--there is no comparison. Krakuer tells a truthful story from a neutral bias. Nowhere in Into the Wild does he say McCandless is "what every American man wants to be". Krakuer lets you make that decision on your own. Further, Conway is not what I want to be--out of touch and unrealistic. I wish Krakuer had written this book so I could at least enjoy the story, not be frustrated with the author for ruining it.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on May 11, 2005
If Gilbert doesn't hook you with her first sentence, then you must be in a coma. "By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree." That was all it took to pull me into Conway's life, whom I'd never heard of before. The bare facts of his life are a testament to the saying, "truth is stranger than fiction." Here is a man who makes his clothes out of buckskin, sleeps in a tent for 17 years, and sets records for cross-country horse rides. Gilbert tells us about his accomplishments, but also tells us about the man: brilliant but unsuccessful with relationships, from his father to his many female friends. Conway's desire to spread the word about a simpler life has actually cost him the simpler life he once led. His endless phone calls and public speaking addresses now eat up the time he could be spending on the trail or in the field, but he feels the sacrifice is worth it if he can save us from ourselves.
Gilbert's style is snappy and conversational. Sometimes we see a little too much of Gilbert in the book, but overall her style works to convey Conway's story. I was never 100% clear on whether or not she interned on Turtle Island or simply visited frequently. The organization of the story is also a little muddled, but still effective.
As soon as I finished The Last American Man, I wanted to know more and was surfing the web to find out more about Turtle Island, Eustace Conway, and Elizabeth Gilbert. If you are a fan of adventure non-fiction (Jon Krakauer, for instance), give this book a try.
39 of 50 people found the following review helpful
on November 30, 2003
I can't decide whether to write a review of the book, or criticize my fellow reviewers, so I think I will do both. I bought this book, read it in four hours, gave it to my husband who then couldn't put it down, and then wrestled it away from him and re-read it. It is that compelling.
Elizabeth Gilbert is supremely talented, able to spin a yarn, laugh at herself, and deliver razor sharp character assessments in a few short sentences. Despite the opinions of some of the critics on this board, she is not in love with Eustace Conway. She does not fawn over this remarkable man, ever.
Instead, she tells Eustace's story with clarity and grace, never losing site of the metaphor she engages in comparing this man's story to the history of the American male, and America in general. Eustace's talent for self promotion seems to rub people the wrong way, even in his own family, but it is this very talent that has enabled Eustace to purchase his land and live his life according to his beliefs.
As for Eustace being deplorable, unlikable, despicable. etc... I had to ask myself if I had read the same book as these folks. I think the word they must be looking for is conflicted. Never did I see any examples of cruelty, anger or hatred in Eustace's behavior. What I did read about was a lot of candy-assed weenies who didn't like being told what to do, people who need to have their every completed task validated with a compliment, people Eustace eventually tires of, and thankfully so. Frankly, I found Gilbert too understanding of these punks, and a bit hard on Eustace. So much for her being in love with him.
As for those who call Eustace a hypocrite, please. This man lived in a tipi for 17 years, lives now with no electricity or running water, and built his homestead with his bare hands and no nails. He is the first to admit he drives a truck, uses plastic buckets and appreciates the power of a chain saw. He never says otherwise, and even if he did, would it make his other accomplishments less valid? Oh yeah, I guess so. The worst thing you can do nowadays is be a hypocrite, right? That negates every accomplishment, invalidates every honor.
As for the claims that thousands live in rural Tennessee, etc... more naturally than Eustace, yeah right. This man is a blacksmith, plows his fields with horses, makes clothes out of buckskin, makes jars from clay found in riverbeds, catches skins and eats rattlesnakes, set two endurance ride records, on and on. I daresay maybe a handful of people live like him, if that many, and they are paid to be 'historical interpreters' at Jamestown and the likes. At the end of the day they punch out and go to Starbucks.
Lastly, the condescension surrounding Eustace's inability to find a mate, as if he is somehow so scarred and despicable he will never marry is ludicrous. If everyone who marries is somehow at a place of peace Eustace will never find because of his mixed up psyche, then the bar must be very low indeed, and Eustace is the smart one.
What I found most interesting about this book is the way it made me take a hard look at some of the decisions I have made in my life. Only the best books do that. I encourage you to read this book and ignore the naysayers. People of heroic proportions tend to polarize everyone, and I think those who dislike this book and Eustace are jealous on some level. Jealous of his decisiveness, his character and his astounding achievements.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on July 7, 2013
I rarely read books about people unless it is someone I greatly admire. My brother gave me this book and suggested I read it, with the caveat that he had not read it yet but wanted to - so I gave it a shot.
While reading this book, I had multiple feelings about it. As it started I really like the book - the stories of Conway's youth were interesting, his abilities at a young age to survive outdoors were admirable and I could see him maturing into someone worthy of a book, looking forward to learning of his accomplishments later in life. As I read, it became clear Conway is not deserving of a book. I began to think he had the potential to be someone worthy of a book, but was not there yet. Then as the book went on I grew more and more tired of it - of him. The back of the book starts off by saying "The Last American Man is the story of Eustace Conway, a true American original." Bull. He is not an American Original, there have been Charlatans in America since the beginning, and make no mistake: Eustace Conway is a Charlatan in every sense of the word.
The author is clearly captivated with Conway, and pours praise on him throughout the book; she can quote Conway saying arrogant, hypocritical things and yet frame it with praise. Thankfully she quotes others who do not share her infatuation; others who give us an inkling of who Conway really is. If you only read one part of the whole book, read the conversation between the author and CuChullaine O'Reilly in Ch. 7, it explains Conway very well. It is unclear if O'Reilly has ever personally met Conway, but he is well aware of Conway's feats, and he puts it this way:
"[Conway has] reached a plateau in his life. He's pushed himself as far as he can go using his charisma and courage, and now he needs to go on a spiritual journey. He needs to do something that is private. He's postured himself in public for so many years that he doesn't know himself. There are parts of his soul he can't begin to understand, and until he learns those things about himself, he'll never be the nomad he's meant to be. He's a brave man, but he's not a spiritual pilgrim yet. Until he goes out into the world, all alone, and cuts away the ropes and publicity and ego and bulls*** and does something truly heroic, he's just blowing smoke up his own ass...he needs to get away from it all. He should stop trying to save the world." (pg. 189)
I couldn't have said it better. The book does a great job demonstrating Conway's problems, he is full of contradictions. If you pay him to speak to your group, you'll get a speech about how we should enjoy nature, yet he doesn't allow those who follow him to do just that. He is so focused on publicity that he rides across America on a horse for one singular reason - focused on one goal - and it has nothing to do with nature. He is focused on setting a world record, that of riding across America on a horse in the shortest time ever...others come along thinking it will be fun, thinking they can learn from him. But they can't. He is so focused on the world record and the shallow praise from the ignorant masses that he tramples over everyone in his path. People who could add meaning to his life are lost in his relentless quest of self-promotion and self-aggrandizement. He set another world record in a horse drawn buggy under similar circumstances. Then we get to hear over and over about his poor emotional state.
He travels around charging money to tell people to live simply and with nature and yet he buys a thousand acres and immediately starts clearing forests, building roads and buildings, and desires to someday live in a mansion with 40 foot cathedral ceilings.
The book ends with Conway categorically stating he is a fraud: "When I go out in public, I deliberately try to present myself as this wild guy who just came down off the mountain, and I'm aware that it's largely an act. I know I'm a showman." (pg. 266) He goes on to say he must do it for the benefit of the people. He could live a secluded life and actually practice what he preached but who would benefit? The world needs him to show them the way. We are so lost, Conway's duty is to let us know (in his own words) "If I say I'm right, then you can be sure I am right, because I don't make mistakes" (pg. 213) Funny thing, since the book is focused on the fact that he has made a lot of mistakes.
At the end of the day that is what I really grew fed up with. His life is a mess and he insists on blaming it on anyone but himself, he does what he does because the world needs him and the world is the cause of his messed up life. The author continually brings up his grandfather and father to offer an excuse to why Conway is the way he is, rarely if ever placing blame where it belongs. Why write a book about a messed up guy? What can we learn from this? Why in the world would we ever consider him the Last American Man? There are plenty of guys just like him - guys trying to make a living, dreaming of mansions on a hill, screwing up relationships. He is not much different from the Average American Man; he just has a different backdrop.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on May 9, 2012
Of course Gilbert can spin a yarn. I never doubt she'll be brutally honest with her own story. I never expected her to be so brutal with someone else's story. It was occasionally discomforting -- and compelling. If you imagine yourself the type who could 'live off the land', beware. You are likely going to get a sobering reality check. For these reasons, I gave the book five stars. Now for the down side. After decades, 'the Last American Man' apparently can't grow or preserve food to comfortable make it through the winter. He and his apprentices resort to endless squash and dumpster diving -- oh brother. As far as being self-sufficient, I will believe when he starts mining the ore and smelting the steel for his blacksmith shop. I can't end with that. I have to say that I recommend the book for its honest tale of a truly flawed and compelling and overachieving man who, in the words of a neighbor, needs to stop pretending to be a farmer.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on August 11, 2013
Not the best book, but it's an easy read. The only problem I have is the female author's biased infatuation with the subject of the book, a self-proclaimed "Mountain Man" named Eustace Conwa. He really comes across like a jerk, and seems to have some serious personality issues. Treats people bad, especially women. Yes, many of us are sick of the high-tech world and living in cities, but he seems to want to crawl back into the stone-age. Why plow a field with a team of oxen when we have tractors? Why set snares when we have rifles? I also take offense at the title; because he's a pseudo-survivalist, he's a "better" man than me? I'm a veteran with 10 years Infantry and Signal, Iraq and Afghanistan, but because this guy uses an outhouse and shoots his own meat he's more manly than me? Whatever. Don't waste your time with the book. The guy is a total jerk and the author writes like a school-girl with a crush. Oh, he cut his hand with a knife and is bleeding, but because the sun is setting and he is so manly, he simply wraps the wound and continues to work, despite fears of losing blood and infection! Because he's "The Last American Man"! Again, whatever.
And this nut is in the news again, which shows you what a hypocrite he is:
"Conway has ditched his trademark buckskins for jeans and T-shirts. Visitors to Turtle Island are as likely to hear the buzz of a chain saw as the call of an eagle, and interns learn that "Dumpster diving" is as important a skill as hunting or fishing.
And then there are the TV cameras, which he's used to convey his message of simpler living for two seasons of "Mountain Men" -- a role he concedes is inherently oxymoronic.
"I think television's terrible," the 52-year-old woodsman says with a chuckle that shakes his long, iron-grey beard and braids. "So it's definitely a paradox."
But it's all part of a complex dance. For Conway and Turtle Island, sustainability has come to depend on interns and apprentices, and on tax-exempt status from a regulatory system he openly despises.
It also depends, increasingly, on a steady stream of paying campers. And that is where Conway's peaceful coexistence with the "modern world" broke down.
Acting on a complaint about alleged illegal building, officials from the Watauga County Planning and Inspection Department raided Turtle Island last fall and found dozens of structures without required permits. Citing numerous potential health and safety code violations, the county attorney gave Conway three options: Bring the buildings up to minimum state standards, have an expert certify that they already met code and obtain proper permits, or tear them down.
What ensued was more than just a battle of government versus an individual. It was also very much about the lines between what is real and what is "reality."
County Planning Director Joe Furman says the conflict started in late spring of 2012 with an anonymous phone call, followed about a week later by an unmarked envelope containing a color-coded map. It showed buildings, road grading and wiring -- all allegedly done without proper permitting, engineering or inspections.
Unlike some of his fellow TV "Mountain Men," who toil high in the Rockies or far out in the Alaskan wilderness, Conway is hardly cut off from civilization.
Once through the gates, everything changes.
The name Turtle Island comes from an American Indian creation myth about a great reptile that saved the world's creatures from a cataclysmic flood by supporting them on its shell. "In the figurative sense," Conway's website explains, "we are an island of wilderness in a sea of development and destruction."
Not exactly, say local officials.
Solar panels run the equipment in Conway's little office, and a micro-hydroelectric plant installed by students from Appalachian State's Appropriate Technology Program powers a small workshop. Inspectors say they found wiring and junction boxes that were not up to code.
The team noted a wood stove whose chimney was vented beneath a building's metal roof, not through it, and unpermitted outhouses intended for public use. Several buildings were not connected to the stacked-stone foundations supporting them.
A former intern expresses a different reservation about Turtle Island.
A 31-year-old from Newnan, Ga., had hoped to learn how to live off the land, to live simply. He says that's not what he got.
When the cameras were off, McGuire says, campers were using nail guns, bulldozers and backhoes. They ate mostly donated food, including condiments. "There wasn't a whole lot of agriculture going on," he said in a recent telephone interview.
Although he quit his internship after six months and the show portrays their relationship as rocky, the young man says he still has a great deal of respect for Conway. He just feels that Conway has "kind of gotten away from what he originally was and what he originally stood for."