Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Slabs

I hardly need to endorse Jon Krakauer's Into The Wild. I just finished it; you should have read it by now.

What started as a 9,000 word article in Outside Magazine called "Death of an Innocent," about a young man, Chris McCandless, who ventured "into the wild" of Alaska and died of starvation, eventually swelled to book-length in 1996 and was then adapted to a film directed by Sean Penn in 2007. The book, a gem of narrative non-fiction on its own merits, is a second draft of the magazine piece in many ways; it fills in gaps, rights assumptions and gives Krakauer a chance to tell in own story of reckless adventuring in parallel to Chris McCandless'. I'm not outdoorsy or adventurous in the least, and I found it all riveting. McCandless' story, imo, falls somewhere between tragedy and farce and adolescent thick-headedness. And it is a STORY in the classical sense, of the particular vintage where the ending is known as you begin (or before you begin), and this doesn't in the least stymie the drama. None of it feels inevitable -- which, of course, it all is.

Although Into the Wild revolves about McCandless, it's absurdly rich in place. It deals in, cautions of, and revels in the mythology of the American West ... where McCandless flees to after he graduates college. His journeys are many, as are his modes of transport: hitchhiking, a canoe, but mainly on foot. He rarely settles, and when he does it's only to raise funds for the next leg of tramping and exploration. The Slabs, though, a commune and refuge in the deserts on Niland, CA, caught my eye, I imagine, because it caught McCandless' eye, too. Note how the space is manipulated by those who inhabit it, converted by those who use it.

(It reminds me, in a sense and off-topic, of the lawn chairs arrayed in Times Square this summer. People moved them around, reclined in them, saved them for friends. For those few weeks, Times Square became something it had never been, both because of the chairs and the way people interacted with them. The people escaped from themselves, too, at least for a few minutes in the sun.)

Without further ado, Krakauer's passage on The Slabs:

"Jan and Bob were staying three miles outside of Niland (CA), at a place the locals call the Slabs, an old navy air base that had been abandoned and razed, leaving a grid of empty concrete foundations scattered far and wide across the desert. Come November, as the weather turns cold across the rest of the country, some five thousand snowbirds and drifters and sundry vagabonds congregate in this otherworldly setting to live on the cheap under the sun. The Slabs functions as a seasonal capital of a teeming itinerant society -- a tolerant, rubber-tired culture comprising the retired, the exiled, the destitute, the perpetually unemployed. Its constituents are men and women and children of all ages, folks on the dodge from collection agencies, relationships gone sour, the law or the IRS, Ohio winters, the middle-class grind."

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