Riverhead Books, 2012
How is it possible to not use money? Is the man crazy? Is he a burden on the rest of us? Could someone really be sane “comfortable” in a cave; a dwelling more often used by religion makers, bank robbers, and bats? Doesn’t he want a brick house with kitchen curtains to call his own where he can enjoy the rewards of labor like the rest of us?
Sundeen is also baffled and intrigued as he approaches Daniel Suelo, the man who has the reputation in Moab, Utah of using even less money than the usual Moab resident. The book could have been a quirky how-to that aims at readers interested in simplifying and recycling beyond the norm. Or it could have been a recitation of Suelo’s biography starting with a childhood in a fundamental Christian family in Colorado, time in college with the common life questions, and then the inevitable leap into adulthood. Sundeen does both and more as he explains Suelo’s personal demons and journeys, both internal and external, that some call a result of being lazy and others call a walk toward the heroic.
An ex-river guide, Sundeen has developed a writing rhythm that imitates floating downriver on peaceful, deep waters. He writes with purposeful, researched direction that can feel like simple, inclusive conversation as he voices his confusion about a man who drops far enough away from society that he rarely uses or needs money. Is Suelo a parasite taking advantage of other people’s wealth in soup kitchens, or is he an incarnation of the Buddhist beggar offering the “privilege of giving”?
The reader has time off from Sundeen’s speculations and Suelo’s biography when the writing floats as Sundeen provides context. He goes into property law, philosophy, and history that also gives broad strokes to religious thinking including The Rapture, St. Francis, and Buddhism. Sundeen covers our entrenched societal values of work, being a contributing member, reward for a job well done, and he gives recent political history of our evermore rapacious, competitive, expensive, and big business run “free market” economic system. And who is really happy here, anyway? Me in my taxed to the max house or the legion of western states wandering desert rats?
Sundeen confronts with history, sociology, fears, prides, and justifications about money. Then he again returns us to the man. What about Daniel Suelo? Could he be accused of simply dropping away from responsibility, or is he a wandering teacher like John the Baptist that we should all listen to?
Here lies the charm of the book that continues to float in Sundeen’s clear and melodic story-telling style. We are told of Suelo’s personal complications, real life dramas and issues that simultaneously cloud and clear up the mysteries of who he is. Where reader are in the end, I suspect, will be anywhere on a long continuum from disgust to an admiration that may send them to a desert cave.