I read this Jon Krakauer book many years ago. I can’t remember how it fell into my lap – maybe the cover on the paperback looked interesting. So imagine my surprise as I started reading, when I discovered that he went to the same high school as me (he graduated one year ahead of me). Had some of the same friends (at least one of which is quoted in the book). And yet I don’t remember crossing his path. When looking through my yearbooks, I found no pictures of him at all. None (I should say I only have three of the four yearbooks I could have had, that one I don’t have might have included pictures of him).
The book was profound and sad and fascinating. And while not all of it may have been true (see A Call to the Wild for that info and Into The Wild: The False Being Within for an even more interesting take on McCandless), enough of it was true to make it a tragic story.
I don’t see Chris McCandless as a hero. I see him as a romantic idiot who thought Jack London and Henry Thoreau had it right. I see him as a kid with some internal demons that couldn’t be addressed in society. I see him as a guy who wanted to escape his parents, his suburban life, his Emory University diploma, and be the new Kerouac. And all those things killed him.
Okay, having said that, the movie was beautifully filmed. I long to go to Alaska and this movie definitely solidified that desire for me. Emile Hirsch as McCandless was terrific. So was Catherine Keener as a hippie chick he meets along the way. I don’t quite know why Hal Holbrook was nominated for an Oscar, but he was. The narration by Jena Malone (who played Chris’ sister in the movie) was a bit overly dramatic for me – Sean Penn obviously tried to give the movie the same On the Road/Call of the Wild poetic sensibility that Chris McCandless sought in his desire to be free.
The movie was a bit slow – and long. Running over two hours long I think it could have been shortened just a bit (keeping it at two hours would have been perfect). But there was enough meat to the movie to keep me interested, and wondering again if I knew him. The iconic picture of him leaning against the bus had me thinking. If perhaps I ate lunch with him one day when I was in that stretch of time hanging out with the track team (of which he was a part). If I would have even noticed him at all. It’s the first time the picture has been blown up enough for me to recognize him. And I did recognize him.
The picture showing up on my 55″ tv screen is what did it. Seeing that picture of Chris so large I realized that he did indeed look familiar. So just now after I typed up my thoughts on the movie, I decided to go into Yahoo Images to find if I could find any pictures of Chris in highschool.
And I did. And my heart fell. Because not only did I know Chris, but I was in high school chorus with Chris. And not only was I in the high school chorus with Chris, but he paid me $100 to play piano while he sang at his father’s birthday party. He had an amazing singing voice – I remember the first time he sang a solo – we were all AMAZED at the pipes on this guy. Our teacher, Mr. Grant, couldn’t stop saying “Wow!” after that first solo. I played piano for the chorus. At some point he approached me and asked if I’d be willing to be play piano at his father’s birthday. He came to my house, and we practiced lots of Frank Sinatra tunes. He sang, I played. And then the day of the party I went to his house, and for two hours I played music from the 1940s while people milled around the backyard celebrating the dad’s birthday. Chris paid me the $100 at the end of the two hours and I went home.
And I can’t believe I didn’t remember that kid’s name. I can’t believe that in all these years since the book came out that I haven’t seen this high school picture of him, and realized that I KNEW CHRIS MCCANDLESS.
He was sweet, he was funny, he was talented, and in NO WAY do I recall him being the Chris McCandless that is written about in the book or portrayed in the movie. But a lot can happen between someone’s senior year in high school and the day they graduate college. And obviously something changed in Chris. To a tragic end.