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Last Update: June 18, 2008 8:45 PM

McCandless' story isn't really told in the book or the film

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Respected author overlooks obvious

Stare into the void long enough and you come to see whatever it is you wish to see. Since man first put pen to paper, this has been a pitfall for the chroniclers of the human condition.

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The bold search for meaning can lead even the most gifted scribblers into a great deal of nonsense. One of the lastest to succumb is Jon Krakauer, one of the nation's best wilderness writers.

His latest book, ''Into the Wild,'' today graces The New York Times best-seller list and attracts rave reviews from citified critics who wouldn't know a couloir from Kool-Aid.

Over the course of some 200 pages, the book chronicles the demise of 24-year-old Christopher McCandless, aka Alexander Supertramp, whose emaciated body was found four years ago in a deserted bus along the Stampede Trail west of Healy.

McCandless died, in Krakauer's view, probing the wilderness for the greater meaning of life in the style of Thoreau or Muir:

''It would be easy to stereotype Christopher McCandless as another boy who felt too much, a loopy young man who read too many books and lacked even a modicum of common sense,'' the author writes. ''But the stereotype isn't a good fit. McCandless wasn't some feckless slacker, adrift and confused, racked by existential despair. To the contrary: His life hummed with meaning and purpose.''

Married to this hypothesis, weighted down by the baggage of his own close calls with death in the wild, Krakauer stumbles to the conclusion that McCandless's death was the unfortunate accident of a young man justifiably searching for himself -- the old there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-you-or-I scenario.

Deep into the hunt for meaning, eyes down on a spoor that must lead somewhere, Krakauer never looks up long enough to see the reality staring at him: His quarry is nuts.

That's a tasteless way to talk about a poor, dead man, and I do not mean it the way it sounds. I use the term merely as a literary device to draw your attention to reality.

Remove Krakauer's well-meaning conclusions from ''Into the Wild'' and what is left is a portrait of a schizophrenic. The onset of mental illness in Chris McCandless is textbook classic.

Early in his 20s, he severs all ties with friends and family for inexplicable reasons. He burns his cash. He takes off on a wild flight to nowhere. He confesses, in his own words, ''that he feels extremely uncomfortable with society.''

His journals show him to be at times delusional and paranoid. He exhibits a litany of bizarre behaviors, including the failure to bathe. A college graduate, he never holds anything but temporary and meaningless jobs. He has trouble at one because he refuses to wear socks.

The writings he leaves behind sometimes appear fogged by hallucination. He sets off for a Alaska with fanciful thoughts of what his journal proclaims as 'THE FINAL AND GREATEST ADVENTURE. THE CLIMACTIC BATTLE TO KILL THE FALSE BEING WITHIN AND VICTORIOUSLY CONCLUDE THE SPIRITUAL PILGRIMAGE.'

'Alex wasn't a total space cadet,'' farmer Wayne Westerberg of Carthage, S.D., tells Krakauer. ''(But) don't get me wrong. There were gaps in his thinking. I remember once I went over to the house, walked into the kitchen and noticed a God-awful stink. I mean it smelled nasty in there. I opened the microwave, and the bottom of it was filled with rancid grease. Alex had been using it to cook chicken, and it never occurred to him that the grease had to drain somewhere.''

This is noted not because of the apparent naivete displayed by McCandless, but to illustrate the seeming disappearance of olfactory function so common to schizophrenics.

On the streets of San Francisco, you smell them living homeless. Many, like McCandless, have abandoned society to pursue their own private and unfathomable pursuits.

Blessed with warm weather and a societal safety net, they can survive on the streets of California. But in the Alaska wilds, natural selection remains harsh and unforgiving.

That the wilderness would crush poor Chris McCandless is no surprise. That he would go the way he did is equally predictable.

''One of his last acts was to take a picture of himself,'' Krakauer writes. 'He is smiling in the picture, and there is no mistaking the look in his eyes: Chris McCandless was at peace, serene as a monk gone to God.''

Or a schizophrenic at the suicidal end.

Too bad Krakauer missed it. He might have been able to do something for mental health in America.

Craig Medred is the Daily News outdoors editor and an opinion columnist.