Book Review: The Last American Man

By Sam Jolman | November 26, 2008

You will notice right away this book is not psychological self help. I read self help too, but find it often leaves me feeling just plain confused. Its sort of like watching a movie from the front row of a theater. Things appear large and more detailed but my eyes usually hurt from trying to focus so much. There is such a thing as analyzing your life too much. To that end, I commend to you The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert – a biography, a human study, a real life story of one man. Sometimes hearing someone else’s story can bring clarity to our own lives that insight alone cannot deliver. And this story will certainly not disappoint you.

Meet Eustace Conway through the eyes of author Elizabeth Gilbert (yes, the Eat Pray Love writer). Eustace is a brilliant charismatic naturalist still alive somewhere in the woods of North Carolina. It seems odd to have a biography of someone still living, unless they’ve been a president or overcome some amazing obstacle to accomplish some grand feat. I guess in that regard, Eustace Conway is the later.

You don’t have to read too long to learn that Eustace has accomplished much with his young life. He survived in the woods for a week at age 12 without bringing food or shelter with him. At age 17 he hiked the Appalachian Trail doing 30 miles a day in sneakers and a loin cloth. Almost without catching his breath, he was on to kayak Alaska and then to living with the most primitive tribe he could find in Guatemala. And just for adventure sake, he galloped across America on horseback and set a new record for the fastest trip from coast to coast by horse. And that’s not to mention his daily life of living in a teepee, running a full nature camp, making his own clothes, and eating road kill. Eustace Conway has indeed done a lot of amazing things.

And all of this is killing him because none of this is getting him the thing he wants most – his father’s validation and love. Eustace Conway has a massive father wound. This is his greatest obstacle. It almost bleeds off the page. Some parts of the book are absolutely heart breaking. Here is just a taste of the words his father uses to obliterate his son. “You are so stupid. I’ve never met a child more dimwitted. I don’t know how I could have sired so idiotic a son. What are we to surmise? I believe you are simply incompetent and will never learn anything.” (p.30) Daily, methodically, deliberately his father bludgeoned his son with similar tirades.

Like everything else in his life, Eustace has put herculean efforts into pleading with his father for some relief, some validation, some love. From age 12 to the present, he has written letters to his father as penance and petition for mercy. Well into adulthood, he wrote: “I have an overwhelming need to be accepted by you, to be appreciated, acknowledged, recognized for something better than trash… I have a great void where I look for love. All I have ever wanted is your love. Perhaps I should accept defeat and stay away from you. But denial and distance do not satisfy the need for your acceptance” (p.105). His father has never responded to any of his letters.

If you’ve ever wondered at the impact of a father’s love on a man, read this book and have your heart torn in two for Eustace Conway. You may find new eyes, new curiosity, new compassion for your own story and the stories of the men in your life.

One Comment

  • After all this time working together I didn’t even know you had a blog. Excellent insight Sam!!! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate it.

    I’ll take a look at this book. It looks like a good one.


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