I started read Jon Krakauer late, just about four or five months ago, and I’m on a total mania with his books now. I’ve known for years he was the author of Into Thin Air, that he was a big-time non-fiction writer, and that I ought to probably read his stuff. But I never got around to it until I found a copy of Under the Banner of Heaven lying around and picked it up. I was hooked after just a couple paragraphs.
The guy’s a dogged reporter, a private eye, really, in following the travels of his subjects. He travels the same routes, talks to the same people, and identifies with the people he’s writing about in some way, whether it’s a kid who forsakes all his material possessions and hitchhikes to Alaska (as in Into the Wild) or a Fundamentalist Mormon killer who believes God told him to slash the throat of an infant (as in Under the Banner of Heaven). That’s a big part of why I like his writing. The fact that he uses the stories to plumb some of the most basic questions of human existence (What is faith? What motivates us?) is another. And, of course, the guy is a great writer. His description of mountains in Alaska, from the second chapter of Into The Wild, is simple and elegant:
“On the northern margin of the Alaska Range, just before the hulking ramparts of Mt. McKinley and it’s satellites surrender to the low Kantishna plain, a series of lesser ridges, known as the Outer Range, sprawls across the flats like a rumpled blanket on an unmade bed.”
But one of the factors which I realized keeps the narrative moving forward with a practically irresistible force is the fact that he always gives away the ending right up front. He tells you where he’s headed, then spends the rest of the book saying how the main character got there. Usually, the ending is a tragic death, and the book is all about what compelled the person to take all of the actions that led up to that death. Of course, that style is partly due to the fact that the stories he’s writing about are non-fiction and therefore already in the news, so many people already know the ending. He doesn’t bury the lede. But it also sets up the entire story so it’s a story about why, not what. We already know what happened. What he focuses on is what prompts a person to live in an abandoned bus in Alaska, risk his life climbing Mt. Everest, or begin to listen to voices from God commanding one to kill. That’s why I’m into Krakauer recently.