Wednesday, July 17, 2002

Free spirit

Two new books mythologize the modern American self-invented man.

Posted By on Wed, Jul 17, 2002 at 12:00 AM

Hobo: A Young Man's Thoughts on Trains and Tramping in America
Eddy Joe Cotton
Harmony, 224 pages, $22

The Last American Man
Elizabeth Gilbert
Viking, 271 pages, $24.95

Eddy Joe Cotton is a hobo with a knack for jumping on trains and landing book deals. According to his Web site, a writer for Maxim forwarded Cotton's journals to his literary agent. An auction a few months later led to the sale of Cotton's memoir, Hobo: A Young Man's Thoughts on Trains and Tramping in America.

In an era when hobos have Web sites and Maxim writers have literary agents, it's nearly impossible to distinguish the myths from the men on the margins of American popular culture. Hobo joins the recent release of Elizabeth Gilbert's biography of Eustace Conway, The Last American Man, as frustrating but fascinating examples of the challenges facing the modern American wanderer. Both Cotton and Conway represent the conflict inherent in creating identities outside of contemporary culture while relying on that culture to survive.

At age 17, Conway left the comfort and chaos of 1970s suburbia for life in a tepee. An emotionally abusive father and an outdoorsy mother pushed him into the woods at an early age, and he never really returned. He went on to hike the Appalachian Trail, earn a university degree, ride across the United States on horseback in record time and secure 1,000 acres of land near Boone, N.C., by selling the one thing he had — himself.

Beneath the leather loincloth and road-kill rations, Conway is a prototype of the modern American businessperson. He bought his first parcel of primitive land with an $80,000 loan from his estranged father, then managed to pay him back with interest and acquire more land by forging a path along the lucrative lecture circuit. The savage noble tirelessly toured schools and festivals, demonstrating traditional skills to harvest modern paydays. When he wasn't speaking before a crowd, he fired off letters of introduction, built an office, and installed a phone line on his land. He even hawked a promotional video, promoting a return to the natural world via modern technology.

Conway limited his personal appearances once he completed the acquisition of what he was soon calling Turtle Island, where campers and volunteers flock to commune with nature and work the earth with primitive farming tools. But Conway remains as untamed as much of his land. He pushes his followers as aggressively as he drives himself, and they tend to leave after a few months of hard work and tough love.

Author Gilbert (Pilgrims, Stern Men) chronicles Conway's history with an eye for his contradictions but an unwavering loyalty to his legend. Interviews with Conway and his family, friends, and former lovers provide a complex portrait of a talented man who mastered the wilderness while never developing many of the social skills expected in the modern world. His limited views on romance and the social roles of women (they flock to him like he's the Last American Man on Earth and leave crying when he berates and ignores them) hint at a perpetual adolescence masked by the guise of mountain-man throwback.

Attempting to place her subject in historical context, Gilbert presents some of Conway's philosophical predecessors, from 19th century pioneers to 1960s communes, through a revisionist lens that reflects her own biases. She declares early in the book, "There is a lot of talk in our history books about what drew young men to the frontier, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if bad relationships with tough fathers was one of the major factors that pushed them out there."

Such overstatement is coupled with a consistent failure to recognize that, unlike Conway, most people throughout U.S. history lacked the resources to decide where and how to live. Her depictions of a New Age guru competing with Conway for real estate, a Native American chief with a private plane acquired via gambling rights and some of Conway's "redneck" and "hillbilly" neighbors are unflattering at best and condescending at worst.

Meanwhile, the author keeps Conway safely on his pedestal and never addresses the implicit ironies of Turtle Island. She identifies but can't explain hypocrisies such as the economic implausibility of one man living off a thousand acres, volunteers occasionally raiding supermarket Dumpsters while teaching people how to independently live in the wild and the nagging sense that Conway's success is based on his ability to offer people what they think they want from him. In an attempt to simultaneously reject and educate modern society, Conway has created a complex persona and a primitive theme park that owes as much to the promotional efforts of P.T. Barnum and Walt Disney as the early American pioneers.

Eddy Joe Cotton is cut from a similarly ragged cloth. Born Zebu Recchia, Cotton adopted his hobo name when he started riding the rails at 19. In the middle of his memoir he explains that he took to the road in order to define himself: "Some folks believe that a man has to have a home, a career, and a debt to have an identity. ... The only identity I had was the one I made up, and to me it was the only one worth having."

But Cotton's sense of self-creation is somewhat dubious. He's clearly indebted to the rambling folk singers and yodeling brakemen who preceded him, and his styling as a lover of women, wide-open spaces, and cheap beer is matched only by his appreciation for bad analogies and self-promotion. The result is a light but generally entertaining account that's equal parts coming-of-age story and hobo history. (The book covers only the first month of Cotton's six years of train-jumping.) Cotton serves up a comprehensive glossary of hobo slang and various misadventures with a revolving-door cast of damaged men who ride the rails to flee pasts they'll probably never escape, including a Vietnam vet who serves as Cotton's first railroad mentor. The memoir only gets bogged down when the author literally gets off track in Nevada during the final 50 pages.

Cotton's account of his time as a hitchhiker — including a torrid affair with a drug-fueled stripper who's apparently attracted to dirty hobos and gas-station-rest-room sex — combines the predictability of a Penthouse Forum letter with a third-rate Hunter S. Thompson impersonation. And the epilogue, in which Cotton literally uses three days of research in a Las Vegas public library to ground his hobo history of America, is just amateurish.

Still, it is tempting to just sit back and enjoy the ride with Cotton once his agenda becomes clear. He may be a huckster at heart, but he can spin a good yarn. And he never drags his emotional baggage to the front of the car like marginal men still lost in the woods.

Frank Diller writes for the City Paper, where this review first appeared.

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