Several years before Elizabeth Gilbert wrote Eat, Pray, Love, her multimillion selling memoir of a year spent travelling the world in pursuit of spiritual wellbeing after a bad divorce, she profiled an altogether more unusual character than herself. Part naturalist, part evangelical utopian, Eustace Conway - the subject of The Last American Man - could also out-rugged the Marlboro Man. Huntin', shootin' and fishin' only make up the tiniest part of Eustace's attempts to live "eye to eye with nature". This is a man who spent almost two decades living in a tepee and dresses in buckskin clothing he makes himself. He has crossed America on horseback and trekked the final thousand miles of the Appalachian Way with little more kit than a pair of bandanas "knotted together to cover his private bits". When faced with a flush toilet, he jumps up on the seat and squats there, in what he considers the most natural stance for defecation.
And his definition of respect for nature is also what you might call unusual. Gilbert describes an occasion when Eustace shot a stag but - failing to kill it with the first bullet - decided that to put it out of its misery with a point-blank second shot would be an insult. Instead, he chose to honour "the magnificent phenomenon of this creature" by wrestling with the injured beast, slicing its neck open with a hunting knife, then smearing its blood all over his face in "an ecstatic prayer of thanksgiving to the universe".
By many people's standards, particularly those of non-Americans, behaving like some kind of new age Davy Crockett might seem a little eccentric, to say the least. But Eustace does typify a certain vision of American manhood. "While the classic European coming-of-age story generally featured a provincial boy who moved to the city and was transformed into a refined gentleman," Gilbert notes, "the American tradition had evolved into the opposite. The American boy came of age by leaving civilisation and striking out toward the hills. There, he shed his cosmopolitan manners and became a robust and proficient man. Not a gentleman, mind you, but a man."
This national mythos fits Eustace perfectly, but he also belongs to another American tradition. Like the creators of the hundred or so model communities which sprang up across America in the 19th century, and the more outlandish young founders of communes in the Sixties and Seventies, Eustace subscribes to "this most American of ideals: that society is both capable of transforming and willing to transform". Eustace's personal utopia is Turtle Island, the farm that he founded in 1987 - the home he returns to after speaking engagements advocating the so-called simple life, but also an educational centre at which visitors can practise what Eustace preaches - a life that in its simplicity is also, for most people, impossibly gruelling.
It is unsurprising that a US readership would fall for a man who embodied these American ideals ("It is almost impossible for man or woman not to fall under the spell of Eustace Conway," gushed the New York Times). Equally, it is understandable that, while The Last American Man was shortlisted for a National Book Award in the US in 2002, it took the international success of Gilbert's memoir to convince a British publisher to invest in it. The book's allure for a UK audience is not necessarily obvious.
In fact the most central point of Eustace's story is the one that gives it international appeal. Eustace is not some unshifting paradigm of American manliness: he's an extraordinary individual whose flaws are as huge as his talents. He is a uniquely knowledgeable, deeply charismatic and, quite clearly, utterly impossible person. At the suggestion that he isn't much of a team player, he counters: "I'm happy to be on a team as long as we always do what I know is right." And Eustace - the product of a controlling father who ensured his youth was "more like a stint at a PoW camp than a real childhood", and a mother who repeatedly told him out of his father's earshot that he would grow up to be a "Man of Destiny" - always knows what is right. Consequently, at least 85 per cent of the apprentices who arrive at Turtle Island starry-eyed and enthusiastic leave before the end of their traineeship, furious or in tears at his unreasonable demands; and a seemingly endless stream of lovers abandon him, at first attracted by his single-minded passion, but ultimately repelled by his total inflexibility. In the end, Eustace appears both heroic and pitiable - one of the greatest obstacles between him and his goals is "the buckling heat of his worries and convictions and personal drive".
Getting sucked into a story told by Elizabeth Gilbert is so easy, and such a pleasure. In her hands, even a concept as repellently self-absorbed as a spiritual post-divorce travelogue can be turned into a sharp, clever read; with Eustace she had a dream subject, a uniquely intriguing man who was also prepared to give her access to his diaries, his family and his ex-lovers for the purposes of research. Conversational, enthusiastic, funny and sharp, the energy of The Last American Man never ebbs; she's sympathetic, but often unflattering. She describes Eustace's courting technique as the "stand-in-the-wind-tunnel-of-my-love approach", and after giving Eustace the space to opine that he believes the United States is in the midst of a national emergency, and that he is losing faith in even his own ability to turn the country around, she segues into happy reminiscences of an evening's drinking with him: "The booze helps turn down his internal furnaces for a short while, which lets you stand close to him without getting singed by the flames of his ambitions."
In her acknowledgements, she claims to have set out to "honour" Eustace. She has certainly achieved that, but only in the sense that Eustace himself would understand: offering an affectionate but unsentimental sort of thanks for a magnificent creature.