What Knight didn’t need, clearly, was other people. They depleted and confused him. Nor was he seduced by busyness. Living in the woods amounted to a kind of self-erasure, an obliteration of time and identity. “What did he do for a living?” Finkel asks. “He lived for a living.” The Chinese have a name for it: wu wei. Non-doing.
I’ll confess that a small part of me was haunted by a different sort of question, which was whether Knight was telling the authorities the whole truth. I am not alone in my skepticism. Finkel writes that roughly 80 percent of the North Pond summer residents he spoke to couldn’t believe Knight had survived for decades in a crude shelter of his own making — not when the winter temperatures could fall to 20 degrees below zero, not when the summer mosquitoes were so vicious they would raise a sky’s worth of constellations on your skin.
But the state police and game warden who interrogated Knight did believe him, and they had plenty of experience in smoking out fibbers, if not hermits.
Knight had definitely fashioned an elaborate North Pond encampment — made exclusively from stolen goods — concealed inside a ring of boulders and hemlocks. He was a poltergeist in a parka, a Charles Boyer on little cat feet. For 27 years, those with vacation cabins on North and Little North Ponds in central Maine would return to find that something was ever so slightly off: steaks gone from the freezer, a pack of batteries missing from a drawer.
Over time, these bewildered residents realized that someone was lurking in the woods. When Knight was apprehended, he estimated he’d committed 40 robberies per year. His was the largest burglary case in the state. “Maybe the world,” Finkel adds.
Be prepared for occasional flourishes like that one. (Another: “Christopher Knight, you could argue, is the most solitary known person in all of history.”) A few sentences in this book are sprayed with that inexplicable men’s-magazine hyperbole cologne.
Much of “The Stranger in the Woods” is devoted to logistics: How Knight bathed (sponge baths), how he kept warm (pacing), how he eluded detection. (He cooked with a camp stove rather than a fire, for example. Because where there’s smoke. …)
Finkel, to whom Knight gave stunning access while in jail — especially for a hermit — also does a fine job conveying the idiosyncrasies of his subject’s character. He was awkward and blunt, yet almost formal in his diction. He brimmed with persnickety literary opinions. He avoided looking at people’s faces — “there’s too much information there” — which may have contributed to the state’s three possible diagnoses for him: Asperger’s syndrome, depression or schizoid personality disorder.
Finkel makes a convincing case that none of these labels are especially apt. Isn’t it possible he just wanted to be alone?
Though my question persists: How alone was he?
“The Stranger in the Woods” is involving and well-told; it certainly casts its spell. But there are inconsistencies in Knight’s story.
When he was first caught, for instance, Knight had trouble calculating his age, because he seemed not to know what day or year it was. But he stole plenty of watches and radios while he was in the woods — he was intrigued by Rush Limbaugh — which suggests that he must have had some idea. And while we’re on the subject of electronics: This is a man who once stole a small television, which he powered with a stolen car battery. If he was so close to civilization, how could no one hear it when he tuned in to Ken Burns’s “The Civil War”? I could go on.
There are possible explanations for these things. I just wish they’d been addressed. Finkel, as many journalists know, has been driven at certain moments to tell improbably awesome stories. In 2001, he wrote a cover article for The New York Times Magazine with a composite character at its heart. He spent a long time in the penalty box for it, but over time, he was sprung — possibly because he, unlike some other sinners in the profession, seemed to have a largely clean record. His other stories checked out fine.
Finkel appears to have been quite conscientious in writing “The Stranger in the Woods.” He provides notes on sources. He gives the names of his (two!) fact-checkers. But it’s hard not to notice that he’s chosen a story that is, in some sense, impossible to completely nail down.
Yet it’s important to note that Knight had no incentive to lie. It’s not as if he craved the attention. People have not stepped forward to say they provided him assistance in all those years. Local authorities speak of his knowledge of the woods with reverence; the Maine newspapers reported his story as truth. And Finkel does tackle a number of objections his readers might silently raise.
He never gets an entirely satisfying explanation from Knight about why he decided, at 20, to vanish from the world. But perhaps we don’t need one. Maybe some people just feel an overpowering longing for solitude the same way others feel an overwhelming urge to ski off the edge of the Matterhorn. It’s another kind of extreme craving. For quiet. For aloneness. For no part of what most of us know.