The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit

What do you get when you pair an amazing subject with a mediocre writer? This book. I suppose I should be grateful that Finkel fleshes out the story of Chris Knight, the Maine hermit that lived in the woods, surviving on junk food he foraged from nearby cabins for 28 years. Knight is an excellent subject, someone who took one look at civilization and immediately headed for isolation after he left high school. But the author smarms his way into the story and ruins it—once Knight is out of jail, he tells Finkel not to visit him, but of course Finkel ignores that. Knight admits that he’s not adjusting well and that his plan is to walk out on a winter night and die of hypothermia, so Finkel immediately starts dialing up therapists to get advice on what to do about this 6-month-in-the-future suicide plan. Finkel also dreams up some scheme to buy Knight his own cabin so he won’t have to live with his mom, but abandons it. Unfortunately, all of this spools off at the end, so I’m left with a terrible taste in my mouth after enjoying most of the book.

I guess another early clue that this was not a worthy read was when Finkel drops some Virginia Woolf references in, claiming that she might have had Asperger’s because she “killed herself.” (This in the section where people are trying to categorize what disorder Knight has.)

I did enjoy reading about Knight’s literary preferences, how he wished he had more Edna St. Vincent Millay around (a fellow Mainer), and his comments about Joyce’s Ulysses “What’s the point of it? I suspect it was a bit of a joke by Joyce…. Pseudo-intellectuals love to drop the name Ulysses as their favorite book. I refused to be intellectually bullied into finishing it.” Knight had a disdain for Thoreau (“he had no deep insight into nature”) but Emerson was ok. John Grisham novels were used as toilet paper. And “I don’t like people who like Jack Kerouac.” Amen, brother.

Best were descriptions of how Knight spent his time in the woods. “Mostly what he did was nothing. He sat on his bucket or in his lawn chair in quiet contemplation… ‘Daydreaming,’ he termed it. ‘Meditation. Thinking about things. Thinking about whatever I wanted to think about.'”

And this might be my favorite line in the book: “His closest companion may have been a mushroom.” Apparently he watched a shelf mushroom grow from the size of a watch face to a dinner plate over many years, which sounds simply dreamy.