I read The Last American Man and Kitchen Confidential back to back, which wasn’t planned, it was just that I craved these biographical short books as transitional material after five volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I tried to start My Struggle Volume Six, but my brain revolted. What I needed was an all-American male palate cleanser, make that two, and these books served the purpose well.
Knausgaard’s half pussy/half rebel Norweigian angst started to feel magnificently complicated and more than a little manufactured, so Anthony Bourdain’s unapologetic American man with a knife, as dark as he can be at times, was a relief.
Sinewy and tattooed, Bourdain was one of the first chefs I noticed in my wine industry days that was not Pillsbury dough-boy puffy. Today more and more chefs are lean and don’t look like they indulge themselves at all, but in the 1990s it was kind of unusual.
Coming from an English major background, I noticed immediately a connection between Bourdain’s restaurant tell-all and that of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, which I read and adored in college. Bourdain notes the inspiration in a list of books at the end. He was so smart to think of doing an updated New York City version; it made him a household name.
Bourdain couldn’t have cribbed from Orwell successfully if he hadn’t been a really good writer himself (although his fiction is pretty weak). It’s a blast to follow him job to job, meeting all his radical co-workers and seeing Tokyo from his unique perspective as he walks through the city at night. The guy’s stamina in the face of addictions, hangovers and long, long days was incredible.
Another sinewy American man with a knife is Eustace Conway, a woodsman in the mold of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett who lives off the land in South Carolina. Eat Pray Love’s Elizabeth Gilbert wrote the book, The Last American Man, about him in 2002.
I read TLAM around the time it came out and developed a love/hate relationship with the idea of Conway. The most memorable and telling bit for me was when he tossed some squirrels on a table, told his girlfriend to make something out of them, and took off again. He told a different girlfriend he wanted 13 kids.
Needless to say, Conway’s buckskins, great smile and skills attracted many beautiful, intelligent women, but his narcissism and patriarchal throw-back values eventually repelled them. Actually, that’s not true. Most of these women told Gilbert they still loved Eustace, they just couldn’t live with him and had to move on. But he definitely cast a spell.
Gilbert writes Conway’s story brilliantly, introducing friends and family at just the right time and in just the right way to illustrate Eustace’s character. The author herself sounds like a badass–only a badass could put up with the uncomfortable living conditions that Eustace afforded his guests and interns and only a badass could work side by side with the tireless and perfectionistic Eustace Conway.
Both KC and TLAM talk quite a bit about food. Obviously these are two different food scenes–one in high end restaurants in New York City and one in the woods of South Carolina, but both men appreciate good, fresh food, hate waste, and aren’t afraid to eat all parts of an animal.
Both Bourdain and Conway are egotistical, but Bourdain had a self-deprecating sense of humor about himself that is missing in Conway. Conway is very much like the James Fenimore Cooper character Natty Bumppo (aka Leatherstocking) who is a humorless, resourceful woodsman. The only difference is that Conway is super sexual whereas Leatherstocking is monkish.
Both Bourdain and Conway ended up with their own shows on TV. In 2018 I was half listening to the show Mountain Men that my husband was watching on TV and heard the name Eustace. “Eustace Conway?” I excitedly asked. My husband was surprised I knew about the guy. Actually I was surprised he was still alive.
Since according to the book Conway worried a lot about how he was going to reach people to teach them about outdoor skills (he actually believed his mission in life to be reaching millions of people), it’s fantastic that he and the show’s producers found each other.
Despite all their charm and accomplishments, neither man was able to find the perfect mate. Bourdain had one child and Conway, who wanted a soccer team’s worth, has not fathered a single child. Bourdain committed suicide in 2018, which was a great loss to the world. It looks like Conway, though he has had many trials and disappointments, will carry on.