Speak softly and carry a big knife

After graduating from high school in 1977, Eustace Conway spent the next 20 years of his life in a teepee. Living off the land in North Carolina's mountains, he hunted animals for food and dressed in their skins. In between extraordinary adventures – hiking the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail with few supplies and even less food, riding his horse across the country in 103 days – Conway logged countless hours in a personal crusade to convince Americans that they, too, can return to the land.

In "The Last American Man," Elizabeth Gilbert renders a masterly portrait of Conway. Her portrait is engrossing and entertaining, filled with thoughtful meditations and humorous observations. The complex strands of this one man's life render a greater story about the "history of man's progress on the North American continent."

Gilbert examines America's ongoing infatuation with the frontier and leaves no stone unturned in her exploration of the cultural landscape of masculinity. Why, she asks, do American men continue to find themselves attracted to the wilderness? And what, precisely, does it mean to be a man in today's world?

Men and women alike fall in love with this buckskin-clad man who speaks softly and carries a big knife. Gilbert, a writer-at-large for GQ magazine, who began spending time with her subject in 1993, misses nothing: the young women who lose themselves in the grandeur of Conway's vision, the lost young men who turn away disillusioned when their idol fails to provide them with all of the answers.

The press loves him, too: "Eloquent, intelligent, courteous, intriguing, and blessedly photogenic, young Eustace Conway in his teepee was the dream of any human-interest story editor."

Conway, Gilbert argues, is a reincarnation of the epic American masculine hero, a 21st-century Davy Crockett who (unlike the rest of us) has successfully forged a self-sufficient pioneer life.

The author uses Conway's quirky biography as a lens for looking at America's cultural history. When the US Census Bureau proclaimed the end of the American frontier in 1890, the country worried what this meant for manhood: Without the wilderness, would our boys become weak and effeminate?

Since then, our anxiety has only grown. Because we've "based our American masculine identity on that brief age of exploration and romantic independence and westward settlement," Gilbert writes, we continue to cling to this outdated concept of masculinity in a postindustrial age that has failed to give us any new myths of manhood.

But Gilbert is too good a writer to stop there. She deftly dispels the fog generated by our Daniel Boone fantasies to show us what others cannot (or will not) see: Eustace Conway is not a simple mountain man leading a peaceful, nature-centered existence. Instead, he is a contradictory, driven individual who finds himself working nonstop in his attempt to single-handedly change the modern American lifestyle.

In order to get his message out, Conway tirelessly gives speeches around the country while he struggles to run a 1,000-acre wilderness education center called Turtle Island in Triplett, N.C. Here, he tries to "save our nation's collective soul" by showing others how they can reconnect with nature's healing cycles.

Balancing compassion with perception, Gilbert unflinchingly reveals how Conway's environmental evangelism generates this grueling, ironically modern schedule. It's hard to watch the relentless toll on his personal life – Conway's fruitless search for the perfect female companion, his tormented quest to reach out to his demanding father.

Gilbert's voice is funny, quick, and smart. Reading "The Last American Man" is a lot like hearing a vivid campfire tale told by a master storyteller: Words are transformed, the characters come alive.

Eustace Conway may live closer to nature than most of us, but he's fortunate for an entirely different reason: He could not have asked for a better writer to chronicle his story.

• Heather Hewett is a freelance writer in New York City.

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