The tale of Christopher Knight is one of those news stories most of us will have read with astonishment, and then promptly forgotten. Knight is the man who lived alone for 27 years in the Maine woods, surviving by committing more than 1,000 nighttime burglaries of area cabins to secure food and supplies for his well-hidden outdoor camp. The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, the subtitle of Michael Finkel’s The Stranger in the Woods, indicates Finkel’s emphasis, which was, indeed, what caught the imagination of most people who heard the story. How in the world could someone live for so many years without any human contact, other than two very brief and accidental encounters with hikers in the woods?
Finkel’s account of the life and times of Christopher Knight is adapted from a piece in GQ, and the book moves along at the brisk pace one expects of a magazine article. Finkel includes plenty of short quotations about hermits and solitude and spirituality, but they tend to be clumped together and undeveloped, as though he had simply taken the best excerpts from an online keyword search.
Not everyone believes Knight spent all 27 years in a tent. Maine winters are brutal, and it would have been easy enough for him to have broken into a cabin and sat out the worst weather. The fact that Knight’s claims are ultimately unverifiable turns out to make Finkel an especially appropriate chronicler of Knight’s story. Fired from the New York Times after admitting a profile of a West African boy was based on a composite of several interviews, Finkel later had his identity stolen by a man who killed his wife and children. The movie adaptation of Finkel’s True Story is based on his coverage of the murder trial, but of course no feature film is entirely accurate. In short, Finkel has already walked (and crossed) the narrow line separating fact from fiction, so it’s not surprising that his book of fewer than 200 pages ends with a seven-page “Note on the Reporting,” clearly documenting how the author acquired his information.
The Stranger in the Woods alludes on several occasions to Thoreau’s Walden. Knight is not a fan: Thoreau’s “solitude” was intermittent and lasted only two years. He was, in short, a phony. Yet dedicated readers of Walden come to admire Thoreau’s writing far more than any claims he makes about himself. The Stranger in the Woods does not aspire to Thoreauvian eloquence, but it is a quick, well-written book that does a good job of unpacking the often-tangled motives of a mysterious man.