Setting

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 664

This story overflows with vivid descriptions of the country McCandless traversed, and a reader can easily trace his peregrinations by pencil on an atlas of the continental United States, although some smaller or more obscure place names may prove elusive and tricky. This account also travels back and forth through time as Krakauer includes sharp descriptions of the forbidding Alaskan terrain that McCandless battled in his doomed bid to survive and the ice-locked mountainside that nearly claimed Krakauer himself as a young man. These Alaskan depictions are especially graphic, striking, and thrilling—probably because this land and the bus that became his home on the Stampede Trail constitute the cold and mysterious heart of Krakauer's haunting narrative.

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Descriptions of Chris's middle-class upbringing are full of references to a bustling blended family and the kind of high school and university activities that many young people will find comfortably familiar. He was always a precocious little boy with a gift for making money, competing athletically, and excelling at just about anything he attempted. His parents had come from humble backgrounds and grew affluent as they raised their family in a comfortable Virginia suburb. This picture of middle-class comfort contrasts sharply with one story about a teenaged Chris dragging a friend into a destitute Washington, D.C. neighborhood, armed with good intentions and a bag of hamburgers for the homeless. More starkly different yet are the descriptions of his largely bohemian lifestyle on the road.

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His ill-fated journey began in the Mojave desert where, startled by the flash flood from a sudden storm, McCandless just managed to escape, though his beloved Datsun automobile was abandoned to the mud. His travels began in earnest after this adventure, as he subsisted on charity from others, on what he could scavenge, and on rice, the unfailing standby. He traveled through the western states from Washington to California and points between, with stopovers in Lake Tahoe, the Sierra Nevada, the Pacific Crest Trail, a scruffy dirt ranch in Northern California, and the Idaho Panhandle, to name only a few.

Terse descriptions resplendent with telling detail make the countryside spring to life, and many locations are brought into powerful relief through the author's detailed portraits of the people who live there. McCandless bought an aluminum canoe in Arizona and paddled down the lower Colorado River, through an ascetic landscape filled with cacti, serene desert, and shimmering salt flats spread before mountains. That voyage took him all the way to Mexico, where he nearly drowned in rough water in the Gulf of California. He later celebrated New Year's Eve here by watching the moon rise over the Great Desert. Wending his way north again, he was caught sneaking back over the United States border and was forced to spend a night in jail.

McCandless now lived off the wiles of a hobo during peregrinations through Texas, along the Pacific Coast, and through cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas, where he lived on the street and hated the feeling of confinement. Especially pertinent are honest and realistic descriptions of places like Carthage, South Dakota, and sprawling Bullhead, Arizona, where he tried to settle down for a while, first camping outside town and then squatting in a trailer. He seemed briefly happy here while holding down a job in a local fast food restaurant, but he still could not bring himself to conform—only wearing socks under duress and annoying management with his casual hygiene. On another occasion, McCandless visited friends at an old abandoned Navy airbase called the "Slab," which had become the site of a mobile freetown of wildly assorted vagabonds whose only common denominator was that they were footloose and traveling on the same road. Here Chris gave an impromptu concert on a portable electric organ at a flea market and dazzled listeners with his musical talent. He even rode the rails, tangling with the dreaded railroad security bulls, and was jailed again, this time in California, for hopping a train.

Literary Qualities

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Documentary biographical writing is not celebrated for its prime literariness. Into the Wild, however, features many of the narrative qualities that mark the best novels. Krakauer's deft interweaving of diverse personalities and locations lend his work a crisp credibility and resonance, while enabling the author to shape a sustained drama from the facts and figures that comprise the documentary materials at hand. His generous and candid descriptions of his varied interviewees eschew cliches and add color and texture to this book.

Krakauer has made Into the Wild a much more complicated book by including many intertexts in the form of thoughtfully placed epigraphs and excerpts from the books that influenced Chris, as well as some anecdotal stories about other young adventurers whose attraction to nature also proved fatal. Krakauer even relates a hairraising tale from his own youth that resonates with the same idealism and stubborn adventurousness that characterized McCandless. This multifaceted story is part biography, part documentary, part autobiography, and part contemplation of human nature.

Krakauer records the minutiae of local scenes by successfully combining his knowledge of the outdoors with the devoted attention of an experienced journalist and professional nonfiction writer. Descriptions of Alaska and other places are both informationally dense and excitingly written. Krakauer's readers acquire a valuable familiarity with remoter parts of their world while being captivated by a riveting story.

Krakauer claims he loves writing books because he loves researching them. Although he makes his living writing shorter magazine articles, he considers the genre "reductionist by nature." Writing an entire book enables him to carefully consider the more complex issues or details of a story that just cannot properly fit into a shorter work. Moreover, Krakauer is a responsible researcher who acknowledges the important role of the McCandless family in the process of researching and preparing Into the Wild for publication. He notes with appreciation the complexities of the personal cost this may have meant for McCandless's parents and siblings. Readers perusing the acknowledgements at the end of the book will come to appreciate the scope of a task like this biography. They may also want to compare Krakauer's willingness to accept and acknowledge assistance with Chris McCandless's seeming disregard for any substantial help whatsoever.

Social Sensitivity

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A number of very unconventional people are portrayed in Into the Wild, and author Krakauer presents them with great respect and sympathy. He describes an assortment of transients like the "rubber tramps" who live out of their cars while eking out a living hawking wares at flea markets and swap meets. McCandless was a "leather tramp" himself because he had given up his car and relied on his shoe leather to get him around. It turns out that there are few common denominators among people who elect to live a vagabond existence; they may be highly educated, disenchanted with the idea of putting down roots somewhere, and disgusted with the thought of trudging through a nine-to-five existence, or they may be down on their luck and homeless. McCandless met, and Krakauer interviewed, all types, from free spirits Jan Burres and her boyfriend, to Charlie, a mildly eccentric old man who took pity on Chris and allowed him to "squat" in a trailer. There are many people for whom a comfortable, stable lifestyle holds little interest or merit, and Krakauer's insightful descriptions humanize the strangers that pass us on the highway. In much the same way, Krakauer renders the lives of the most ordinary people—the ones we meet briefly in nondescript small towns or on the road, like Wayne Westerberg or Jim Gallien—visible in a manner that makes them extraordinary, familiar, and comforting. It becomes clear that people who live on the road or hold down unglamorous jobs are often possessed of great dignity, warmth, and an insight that enables them to recognize something special in a stranger like Chris.

The original Outside article that was published in January, 1993, was greeted with a barrage of mail that represented deeply polarized responses. Many writers condemned Chris's foolhardiness and Krakauer's refusal to judge him in a harash light, while others expressed sympathy and admiration for the young man. It is therefore to Krakauer's credit that he avoids offering any easy judgement, striving not to force any conclusions on his reader. Although he clearly sympathizes with Chris in a special way, he attempts to back away from stating whether Chris was right or wrong in his decisions and actions, urging readers to judge for themselves.

An issue that is central to Into the Wild is Chris's estrangement from his family. Krakauer, while still withholding judgment, presents Chris's mysterious condemnation of the parents who tried to give him everything they had never had and simply and clearly shows the pain this rejection caused, even while he investigates the other side of the equation. He acknowledges that Walt loved his children fiercely and wanted them to have the things he had struggled without, but he notes the force of the father's character and expectations that would have threatened to suffocate his son. With as much respect as possible to Walt and Billie McCandless and their family, Krakauer presents honestly and without prejudice the discovery about their early relationship that was probably a catalyst in Chris's alienation.

For Further Reference

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"Jon Krakauer." In Contemporary Authors. Volume 153. Eds. Terrie M. Rooney and Jennifer Gariepy. New York: Gale, 1997, p. 195. Provides a brief introduction to Krakauer as a journalist and writer, including brief but useful overviews of Eiger Dreams and Into the Wild.

Krakauer, Jon. "Death of an Innocent." Outside 28,1 (January 1993): 38. Krakauer's award-winning article was written shortly after the discovery of McCandless's death and formed the basis of Into the Wild.

——. Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster. New York: Villard, 1997. Krakauer's account of the catastrophic 1996 Everest ascent is filled with anecdotal material about his childhood and the history of his love of climbing and the wilderness.

McNamee, Thomas. Review. New York Times Book Review (March 3, 1996): 29. McNamee summarizes Krakauer's account of McCandless's last days and praises the author's thoroughness and quality of work even though he is unequivocally critical toward McCandless's unconventional lifestyle and motives.

Roberts, Paul. "Profile: Jon Krakauer." Outside Online Lodge (February 1996). Online. Internet. http:/ / outside.starwave.com./disc/guest /krakauer/profile. html Combines interesting biographical information along with Krakauer's comments on his desires, his heroes, and his fears.

Weissman, Larry. "An Interview with Jon Krakauer." boldtype: an online literary magazine issue 4 (June 1997). Online. Internet. (August 31, 1998). http:/ /www.boldtype.eom/0697/k rakauer/interview. html Interview with the author about writing, climbing, and his personal stakes in the McCandless story and the Everest tragedy.

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