One fine day in 1986, sometime after the Chernobyl disaster and well into Reagan’s second term in office (and a few months before my birth, though it wasn’t mentioned), a twenty-something called Christopher Knight parked his almost-new Subaru Brat at the end of a small road in Northern Maine. He left the keys on the dashboard, closed the door and walked into the woods.
He wouldn’t leave them until 2013.
There are some stories that can almost write themselves, whose books are all but condemned to becoming best-seller; then there’s the story of Chris Knight. A man who spent 27 years in utmost isolation, without speaking to a person – but for a “Hi” said to a trekker – and a man who resorted to committing thousands of break-ins to gather what he needed for surviving. On the face of it, an interesting case. A compelling human adventure. Something worth hearing on the radio, something that might make you think for a few minutes before the DJ switches back to music. But making a book out of it? Out of a story where no words are uttered for 27 years (but for “Hi”)? It takes some talent to give this story justice. A certain breed of writer. Luckily, it found Michael Finkel.
My edition of The Stranger in the Woods comes with a splendid, 1980s-style, artwork on the cover: the silhouette of a man standing, alone, in an immense and eerie forest, a torch shining a minuscule beacon of light. It echoes of Goonies, of those Italian editions of Stephen King printed by Sperling & Kupfer. The artwork was what attracted me at first, what stopped my amblings around the second floor of Chiswick’s Waterstones. Then what sealed the deal was a phrase, printed in small font near the top right-hand corner: “A breath-taking book”, signed by Sebastian Junger. If Finkel managed to steal the breath of the author of non-fiction masterpieces such as War and The Perfect Storm then I was in.
Junger was right. At 203 pages with notes, The Stranger in the Woods is agile, more pamphlet than tome. The kind of thing you’ll breathe through in three there-and-backs of commuting; but to think it shallow would be an injustice, a big mistake. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever stopped to reflect so hard on a book for ages. At least from my first reading of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
There’s so much in this book that it’s hard to know where to start, how to unravel the thread. There’s obviously the story of Chris Knight and of his incredible life choice, told from a multitude of angles – friends, family, those he robbed, those who caught him and, ultimately, by himself – but more on that later. And that, in itself, is an incredible tale. Then there’s the insight into the world of hermits, figures who peppered the history of our planet with their refusal to commit to the ways of the world, to bow to the rat race.
More importantly, what makes this book special is the angle chosen by Finkel: like Junger in his works, he’s not there to explain, translate or pass judgement. He’s there to tell a story, to be as complete and thorough as he can be. Chris Knight’s inventiveness and resilience finds as much space as the damage – material and psychological – he inflicted on the community he routinely robbed; in the book equal space is given to those who respect his way of life and those whose existence he made harder. But for a few tricks to keep up the tempo, there’s very little space given to dramatization.
Then there’s also another story, narrated with nothing but a few broad brushstrokes, a few quotes: the one of the relationship between author and protagonist, between Finkel and Knight. A handful of encounters in jail, talking through those phones we all see in movies, a couple of conversations face to face and some letters: enough to add another layer to this beautifully complex book.
I guess that my favourite aspect of The Stranger in the Woods is that it’ll make you think. In explaining the life choices of a man who decided to secede from our society, who decided to escape all contacts with the rest of us in pursuit of his own way, Finkel will make you ponder. About us, about you, about how we live, about why we seem to be all blindly following an obliged choice – work, commuting, mortgage, “spending the prime of one’s life in a cubicle looking at a screen” – without actually stopping to ask ourselves if this is really what we want.