Elizabeth Gilbert

       The Last American Man

    Increasingly, too, he began to take issue with the Christian cycle of pray-sin-repent-pray-sin-repent-pray-sin-repent.  It seemed obvious to him that this was nothing more than a moral cop-out, writ large.  You sin; you are immediately forgiven; you go out and sin some more, armed with the understanding that you will be forgiven once again.  He found it stupid, weak, and cheap.  Why was there this assumption that people were destined to sin, anyhow?  If people loved the Bible so much, Eustace wondered, why couldn’t they just obey the clear instructions it offers and quit lying, cheating, stealing, murdering, and whore-mongering?  How many times you gotta read the friggin’ Ten Commandments before you get them right?  Stop sinning!  Live the way you have been taught to live!  Then you won’t have to come to church every Sunday and kneel and weep and repent.  And you’ll have a lot more time to spend outside in the forest, where, as Eustace believed, “there is only truth to be found—no lies, no shams, no illusions, no hypocrisy.  Just a truthful place, where all beings are governed by a set of perfect laws that have never changes and never will.” 


Most Americans probably don’t want to live off the land in any way that would involve real discomfort, but they still catch a thrill from Eustace’s continual assurance that “You can!”  Because that’s what most of us want to hear.  We don’t want to be out there in a snowstorm on the Oregon Trail, fixing the broken axle of a covered wagon; we want to feel as though we could do it if we had to.  And Eustace lives as he does in order to provide us with that comforting proof. 


So it is that the incompetence widens with each generation.  Still, Eustace feels he could handle this incompetence if it weren’t for the one big flaw he sees in modern Americans of all ages:  people don’t listen.  They don’t know how to pay attention.  They don’t know how to focus.  Even if they claim that they want to learn, they have no discipline. 

…Eustace got so that he could hear a twig snapping the forest and know by the sound the diameter of the twig, which told him whether it had been stepped on by a heavy deer or a squirrel.  Or was the snap merely the sound of a dry branch falling out of a tree in the morning breeze?  Eustace learned to tell the difference.


Jason’s [Eustace little brother] discomfort in his own skin seemed to me typical of many young American men, who see their female peers soar into anew world and often have trouble catching up.  When Jason looks out into American society, after all, what does he see?  Aside from the environmental and consumer crisis that so offends his sensibilities, he is facing a world undergoing a total cultural and gender upheaval.  Men are still largely in charge, mind you, but they are slipping fast.  Modern America is a society where college-educated men have seen their incomes drop 20 percent over the last twenty-five years.  A society where women complete high school and college at significantly higher rates than men, and have new doors of opportunity opened to them every day.  A society where a third of all wives make more money than their husbands.  A society where women are increasingly in control of their biological and economic destinies, often choosing to raise their children alone or not to have children at all or to leave an identifiable man out of the reproductive picture entirely, through the miracles of the sperm bank.  A society, in other words, where a man is not necessary in the way he was customarily needed—to protect, to provide, to procreate. 


He remembered another long day in Virginia, when he ended up hiking late at night to make his allotted daily miles, hiking along a dark country road in the most rural countryside.  It was a Friday evening, so all the local rednecks were driving around in their trucks, listening to music and drinking and heading to parties.  They kept stopping to see what Eustace was up to. 

            “You need a ride, son?” the good ol’ boys asked.

            “No, thanks,” Eustace answered. 

            “Where you walkin’ from?”

            “Maine.”

            That answer didn’t make much of an impression on the good ol’ boys. 

            “Well, where you headed to?”

            “Georgia,” Eustace told them, and the guys positively flipped out, whoopin’ in disbelief. 

            “This damn fool’s walking all the way to Georgia!” 

            Clearly, then had never heard of Maine.

            Then, feeling sorry for Eustace, they gave him a beer and drove off.  Eustace walked along in the dark, drinking the beer and humming to himself and listening to the night insects of Virginia sing.  About the time he finished the beer, along came another truckload of rednecks. 

            “You need a ride, son?”

            And the conversion was repeated, word for word, right down to the punch line.  “This damn fool’s walking all the way to Georgia!” 


One evening, I went to a distant field with Eustace to watch him teach Twig how to use a disc plow.  They had to drag the plow out to this field about half a mile through the woods with a mule and draft horse, using a sturdy old Appalachian sled to carry the machinery.  Every aspect of the job spoke of potential physical danger—the ungainly and willful animals, the unsteadiness of the sled, the flying chains and leather straps and ropes, the razor-sharp edges of the heavy old plow.  And yet knowing all this, and having lived at Turtle Island for six months, Twig elected to show up for this job wearing flip-flops. 


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Updated: November 3, 2009


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