THE LAST AMERICAN MAN
BY ELIZABETH GILBERT
TO MEET EUSTACE CONWAY is to be dazzled. Here's a man who stalked, killed, and dressed the deer whose skin he wears as pants; who rode a horse clear across America; who dines on roadkill and sleeps in a tepee and lives so close to the land that he's damn near half dirt. In lesser hands a biography of this modern Davy Crockett might have spun into a simple "Life of Saint Eustace." But Elizabeth Gilbert, who so ably captured the lives of New England lobstermen in her novel Stern Men, probes the darker corners of his character and comes away with the finest examination of American masculinity and wilderness since Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild. A survival instructor in the mountains of North Carolina, Conway, 40, is a superb woodsman, but his relentless perfectionism and domineering personality turn his students, employees, and girlfriends into resentful exes. Reading The Last American Man is like listening to a friend tell you about an unbelievable character over a couple bottles of house red. When Conway ticks off the qualities he requires in a mate, for instance, this is Gilbert's reaction: "You can see how God himself might shake his head when handed such an invoice and say, Sorry, pal, we don't carry that in stock. But Eustace is way more optimistic than God. And way more lonely than God, too." Ah, but can God throw a knife accurately enough to nail a squirrel to a treeand then cook it up for soup?
THE CIA'S SECRET EXPEDITION TO LHASA
BY THOMAS LAIRD
(Grove Press, $26)
IN HIS DEBUT BOOK, American journalist and longtime Kathmandu expat Thomas Laird uncovers America's hidden role in the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Three weeks after Mao took China in October 1949, the CIA sent two agents, loaded with gold, guns, and grenades, on a mission into the mountain kingdom. After a harrowing thousand-mile trek on foot and camel across China, the lead agent was shot by a Tibetan border guardbecoming the first CIA operative ever killed in covert action. His partner survived to meet the Dalai Lama, but word of his presence in Lhasa raised false hope among Tibetans and, Laird suggests, may have hastened China's October 1950 invasion. Laird holds the U.S. government responsible for betraying the Tibetansa "cynical manipulation of people and history," he writes, that "enraged me"but his own evidence suggests that a weak Tibet simply got caught in a Cold War power play. Despite its j'accuse moments, Into Tibet brings alive the remarkable adventure of two American Heinrich Harrers and an event the CIA would still, more than 50 years later, like to keep quiet.
CYCLING THE TOUR DE FRANCE
BY TIM MOORE
(St. Martin's Press, $23)
THIS IS THE TOUR de France for the rest of us. In 2000, Londoner Tim Moore (author of Frost on My Mustache) dons bike jersey and mirrored wraparounds and heads across the Channel to ride the 2,256-mile Tour course in the weeks before the real peloton sweeps through. Moore's Tour starts off swimmingly: Like the pros, he smears antiseptic cream "over arse and bollocks"; hails the natives ("Hello there, cows; top of the morning, Mr. Magpie; shut the fuck up, dog..."); and plays "slug tennis" when it rains ("what I can only shamefully describe as the bisection of roadside arthropods beneath rotating rubber"). But soon enough he discovers the terrors of (a) bonking, (b) the Pyrenees, and (c) Mont Ventoux, where he finally collapses. This is ludicrous schadenfreude at its bestlike Evelyn Waugh on EPOand it will be welcomed by every couch potato who has ever noticed that, when it comes to athletic physique, "there is no more grotesque specimen than the Tour de France cyclist."
THE BACKBONE OF THE WORLD
A PORTRAIT OF A VANISHING WAY OF LIFE ALONG THE CONTINENTAL DIVIDE
BY FRANK CLIFFORD
LOS ANGELES TIMES environmental editor Frank Clifford leapfrogged along the Continental Divide for this chronicle, gathering profiles of America's most hard-bitten backcountry denizens, from New Mexico cattle ranchers to Wyoming wilderness guides. A writer in the plain style, Clifford is an able judge of character, providing a refreshingly unsentimental portrait of the loners along the continent's spine. "I wanted to find them while they were still there," he writes. Problem is, the book's romantic tendency to mourn the salt of the West is undercut by its unblinking reporting on these embittered renegades, many of whom labor under a Rush Limbaugh-induced haze of victimhood. A member of Montana's Blackfoot tribe whines about the Endangered Species Act because grizzlies ruin his golf game, and sheepherder Sam Robinson still bites off his rams' testiclesbecause that's the way his grandfather did it. When the Western notion of freedom is reduced, as it is by an old-timer in a Wyoming bar, to being able to hang insulating plastic over your windows without the neighbors complaining, maybe it's time to dismantle the Old West for good.