Michael Finkel’s The Stranger in the Woods joins Jon Krakauer’s Into The Wild as a classic of the genre of possibly introverted, maybe misanthropic young white men named Chris who throw it all away to live hermetically in isolation in the wilds.
That’s my reductive review because it would be an easy reductive review, only Christopher Knight, the possibly introverted maybe misanthropic focus of this deserved best-seller is a far tougher subject to figure out than Christopher McCandless of Into The Wild. McCandless had the bravado and fearlessness of youth on his side, fearlessness that was misguided and ultimately fatal. Knight, in contrast, parked his car in the 80s, walked into the Maine woods—not, incidentally, hundreds of miles from civilization in the Alaskan bush, but a mere few hundred of feet from the summer cabins around a popular lake—and lived in a makeshift hideout for 27 years in isolation under the unsuspecting noses of the local residents whose stolen food, furniture, and toiletries kept Knight alive through season after season.
Finkel documents Knight’s capture and incarceration for, by some accounts, over 1,o00 felony burglaries over 27 years by baffled local authorities, retracing his steps, and visiting his abandoned hideout while trying to get a sense of how Knight lived and survived under circumstances that are nearly unprecedented. Knight ultimately remains an enigma by the end, perhaps because there just aren’t many, if any, characters or stories like Knight’s to compare his behavior with.
It’s difficult for most of us keeping an often exhausting pace on the treadmill of modern society to imagine living without other people, or showers, or computers, or phones, or even a roof over our heads for any amount of time, much less 27 years. Finkel has rendered a fascinating, compassionate portrait and there isn’t a wasted word in this relatively short but economical book.