categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence
I really loved reading Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. I’m not alone in that, of course. The book has had the trajectory of a rocket and has left earth’s constricting atmosphere, bound for the heavens, and history. Cheryl Strayed has built the most compelling narrative out of a walk on the Pacific Coast Trail. Walk, ha. It’s 1100 miles of difficult terrain, from desert to snowfield to deep, dark forest. Also the forest of the soul. And that’s where the irresistible drive of this book takes place, the soul. Trail stories are nearly universally boring—a privileged person wears out some shoes, or a funny person mocks the enterprise, or an achiever overvalues his experience and documents every hard-won sandwich. Whatever, in the end they are victors, and their triumph has a moral.
What Strayed adds to the mix is a strong, anti-suburban anti-ethos. She’s been self-destructive, but doesn’t really mind that about herself, in fact, motherless, steps in these many years later and loves her younger self unconditionally. And as reader, you love her, too, really, really care about this kid and the person she becomes, love her from the start, and love her courageous incompetence, her confident ambivalence even as she walks through the valley of the shadow of death—“Who’s braver than me!” she keeps saying.
And you worry about her feet, and your worry about her life, and you wish people would come through for her even though she doesn’t need them, and in that and all other ways you admire her courage, part of which is the courage of the narrative itself.
What I love most about Wild is that the Cheryl writing doesn’t judge the Cheryl hiking, and doesn’t feel superior to her, and most of all—here’s the power of the book, I think—loves her unconditionally, and in that way offers her, well, a mom as she puts herself in the driver’s seat of her own life. If I may quote her. And then as we follow the trail, the voice of the narration slips back effortlessly and becomes the hiker’s, and the hiker’s memory as she hikes becomes again the narration.
There’s also the frank sexuality, the attractions, the happy hook-ups, the unhappy, the good decisions and bad, the dammed-up tears that will flow when the time finally comes. There’s the body, too, the real body, the pack-damaged skin, the tattoo of a horse (and the story that goes with it), the hole to shit in, the trail-friendly menstrual sponge, the unfriendly hunger, the terrible thirst: it’s wonderful, it’s human, the body natural, and almost no one ever mentions any of it.
I love it because it’s all so anti-suburban: the younger Cheryl did these things and thought these things and wanted these things and made horrendous mistakes but had fun, too, sex, smack, and rock and roll, and that’s how it is, so.
And literarily speaking there’s a parallel, the refusal of the epic model, in which the hero returns home, like Odysseus, or Dorothy. Because our hero can’ go home: her home is gone. And in the end she can’t quite say what the moral is, and doesn’t try. A hike’s just a hike, let’s not kid ourselves. The growth has happened since, and it was in progress before. You can’t just put down the heavy pack and walk away, and putting on a heavy pack doesn’t mean you weren’t wearing one the moment before.
A great book, which you also can’t put down (read that as you wish, all true), and an example of well-deserved success, things going right in book world.