Painting by Howard Pyle

Five Modern Crusoes

A short story

1. It’s not easy being modern. Consider his first surprise: though the shipwreck goes exactly as expected, and no one can complain about the authentic way the waves thrash him around before heaving him onto the beach, it soon becomes clear that the island he has landed on is fully inhabited. Plenty of other people have been shipwrecked there over the years. Not just sailors and ship’s carpenters, but regular folk as well—hotel clerks, retired couples, internet millionaires . . . The castaways strolling on the beach aren’t that surprised to find him there in the sand—people wash up every so often. They help him up and lead him back to town.

It’s considerate of them, and a good night’s sleep will do him wonders. But once his hosts have tucked him into bed and switched off the light, sleep is the last thing on Crusoe’s mind. The foldout couch in their den smells like Cheetos; he can hear the kids playing video games upstairs; and it’s all too clear that something has gone deeply, embarrassingly wrong. He lies there in the dark, gazing at the aquamarine numbers on the VCR:

12:00   12:00   12:00. . .

In the morning it gets worse. They take him to brunch, show him around town, drop in at the hardware store, the Dairy Queen, and the post office. Everyone’s so welcoming—they know how tough it is to be a castaway—but their hospitality weighs on Crusoe’s heart. He was never the best reader in the world, but he knows the story as well as anyone else. And the fact is, none of this is in the book. By this time he should be battling the elements, stalking wild animals, cutting down trees with his pocketknife, and all the rest. The question is: who are these people?

For a while he tries to make do in a little hut on the far side of the island, but it’s never quite isolated enough. As soon as his beard gets long and his clothes start to look tattered (the way they should), one of the neighbors stops by to borrow some flour, to complain about the reception on the satellite TV, or just to see how Crusoe is doing. Whenever he takes up his homemade spear and goes hunting in the woods, he runs into the same troop of Cub Scouts and their long-suffering den master.

Someone a little more laid-back might have rolled with the punches and made an effort to fit in—set up a hot dog stand, coached a Little League team, or whatever. Not Crusoe. From the bark of a native shrub he distills a powerful toxin, and at the Thursday night barbecue he murders the entire population. It’s an ugly scene, but Crusoe’s got no time for remorse. He has work to do. Those donut shops have to be torn down, the suburbs torched, all the street signs and billboards tossed in a great hole and covered over. It keeps him busy for months. At least he’s sleeping well at night, now that he’s switched off those annoying lights at the football stadium.

It’s once he starts reforesting the island that he begins to appreciate the scale of his task. There’s an eighteen-hole golf course, among other things, that nothing but time will return to wilderness. He spends his days seeding the foundations of the buildings, breaking up the parking lots, hauling water up from the spring. . .

After a few years the tennis courts have reverted to brush. Birds start to come back. But Crusoe knows it’s just a start—it’ll take decades to fix things properly. Every so often, over the years, a ship goes down on the reefs offshore and some unlucky sailor comes crawling up the beach, croaking for water; but it’s still too early, things aren’t right yet, Crusoe has no choice but to club him on the head.

It takes him the rest of his life to finish the job properly. On the evening of the island’s completion he spots a sloop breaking up on the reef to the west and scatters the remains of his twig-and-moss shelter. Then it’s a race down to the surf, taking care to erase his last footprints with a palm leaf. The storm is raging wildly now, lightning is slashing down everywhere. It’s pitiful to see the frail old man struggle out through the waves so stubbornly. At the edge of the deep water he pauses a second to gaze back at that perfect island.

Sharks tear him to pieces just in time.


2. It’s a good thing, too. If he’d known what sort of Crusoe this newcomer was going to be, he’d never have gone to the trouble of fixing up the island for him. That—or he’d have clubbed him on the head and waited around for someone a little more suitable.

It’s true, this next Crusoe is probably too young for all the responsibility that’s been placed on his shoulders. Yeah, he read the book in school—but he was never really that into it. Signing up for this was pretty much a joke, even though it will look good on his college applications, and it’s definitely cooler than junior year in high school. But now that the ship’s at sea, tossing him back and forth in his bunk, he’s having second thoughts. He’s sick of the quaint way the sailors talk, sick of their absurd seventeenth-century manners, sick of the obsolete nautical terms they insist on using for the different sails and masts and so on. Most of the time he’s below deck with his iPod cranked up loud enough to drown out the creaking timbers. It’s a wonder the first mate doesn’t lose his patience, pitch the kid overboard, and ruin everything; but things end up all right after all. The ship goes down with all hands, except for our boy.

And now the storm really does put the fear of God into his young heart. Twenty times, clawing at the waves, he’s pulled under and choked with seawater. It’s no laughing matter, that shipwreck. By the time he reaches the beach, he has a whole new perspective on life. For the first time a sense of duty burdens his heart. From this day on he’ll stand up straighter, lead a responsible life, do all those things his parents have been nagging him about. Under the circumstances this means he has to find some food and water, build a stockade, track down Friday. . .

Shit. The truth is he’s never been much of a go-getter, this Crusoe. The truth is he’d rather see if there’s anything decent on TV. Let’s face it—it’s a pain in the ass to build a stockade with your bare hands—especially if you’re starting from scratch, and especially if you’ve never built anything before in your life. After a morning of hard work he manages to cut down one tree, but then—do you know how heavy trees are? In the meantime, the palm fronds he’s stuck in the sand make a pretty good shelter. Whenever they dry out and begin to rattle in the breeze he cuts some fresh ones and finds a new patch of sand farther up the beach. It’s true, the connection on the island is pretty slow and it takes web pages like forever to load, but it’s worth the wait. Even on that middle-of-nowhere island he can keep track of his favorite musical artists, movie stars, and sports teams. He can download MP3s.

Sometimes, remembering the storm and his promises to lead a proper life, he feels a little ashamed of the way things have turned out. Then, for a couple of hours, he goes out and swings at the plants with a rusty old machete. But it never really leads to anything. There’s not even anyone around, except for Friday. Friday—who was pretty much a slacker himself, if he remembers correctly. Sometimes, when the web pages load more slowly than usual, he imagines Friday somewhere on the other side of the island, hogging all the bandwidth downloading pictures of lingerie models, and it pisses him off. But he can relate. Lately he’s discovered some websites devoted to that pretty young tennis star and her provocative outfits. . .

Days pass, weeks pass, months pass. The search engines grow more powerful day by day; the websites are continually updated and improved; even his dial-up modem seems to be getting faster. It’s satisfying to watch technology progress like that. The sad thing is that none of the websites he visits warn Crusoe about the cannibals who drop by the island every so often. Remember them? They follow the trail of Dr. Pepper cans to his hangout and make a meal of him right there, and in the morning they continue on their way.


3. All the better that our next Crusoe knows nothing of it. He’s a rational, hardworking sort—just what’s needed to get things back on track. He does everything right. All day long he works on various projects for improving the island—then nighttime finds him drawing up plans by candlelight, inventing useful appliances, writing essays on the flat tax, and so on. It’s clear he’s no regular Crusoe. He’s a genius. In his spare time he builds an astronomical observatory and takes part in the search for dark matter. He draws up a scheme for the stabilization of the world’s financial markets. He invents a self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, explores all the reefs, figures out the food web relations between the fish, the squids, and everything else. Not only does he escape being skewered and eaten by the cannibals, he orchestrates a peace process that heals long-standing rifts in their local geopolitics; he publishes the definitive ethnographical study of their culture; and he raises funds to build a modern, climate-controlled museum for their most valuable and interesting artifacts.

Everyone agrees he’s a great guy. On top of it all, he’s modest. You won’t hear him grumbling about how if he weren’t stuck on that stupid island he would have won a Nobel Prize, or been nominated for a seat on the Supreme Court, or made millions in the stock market. He seems perfectly happy with the way things have turned out. It doesn’t even bother him that Friday is a bit of a dullard and the world’s worst conversationalist. Crusoe tutors him on the weekends, and in a few years the poor fellow has a master’s in business administration.

But despite all their innovative strategies to boost agricultural production, manage animal populations, and harness the island’s hydroelectric resources, some odd developments are afoot. A few years ago, evenings on the island were alive with the plink-plink of tree frogs; these days you hardly hear any at all. An aggressive Eurasian thistle has begun moving into the forests and crowding out the native vegetation. Crusoe has been monitoring these trends, and he and Friday have taken some characteristically brilliant countermeasures. Even so, things keep getting worse. His beloved tree snails, which have been in a slow decline for years, suddenly give up the ghost en masse. Once the snails are gone, the birds that used to eat them starve to death. Then, because there’s no one to eat the insects, grasshoppers destroy the crops. It’s some sort of chain reaction—everything happens so fast. Pretty soon whales and octopuses start washing up on the beaches, covered with a scuzzy fungus. Trees rot where they stand.

By this time Crusoe’s despair is heart wrenching to behold. Tormented by depression, he’s taken to throwing paranoid tantrums and blaming everything on his old friend Friday. In his desperation he implements one emergency solution after another, each more ambitious than the last, with a larger budget, better indicators, stricter protocols, and more dynamic flowcharts. In the end, none of it does any good. They’re done for.


4. Several years go by before the next shipwreck—which is only fair for the poor island. Give nature a little time to recover its wits after being pushed around so much. Let birds be blown off course by typhoons, let fungal spores rain down from the clouds, let geckos scurry ashore from driftwood and disoriented lobsters repopulate the deserted reefs. Let an orchid develop a relationship with a long-tongued, copper-winged moth—until, with the passage of time and the natural acceleration of complexity, the island regains its former beauty.

There—now the fourth of them washes ashore. Pale, waterlogged, more dead than alive. For the first few hours he lacks the strength to make it to his feet. The surf washes around his ankles. Crabs pick at his hair. It’s worrisome. Is he dead? Oh—apparently not. Poor fellow, let him get his strength back. He’s had a rough time. Soon he’ll be on his feet, and then he’ll show us what kind of Crusoe he is.

Sure enough—a few days later the color is back in his cheeks and he starts exploring the island. He climbs every dune, scrabbles down every ravine, jumps across creeks, and peers into caves with the zeal of an old-fashioned explorer. After a few weeks he knows the island like his own backyard. He spends whole afternoons on the clifftops gazing at the scenery and whole evenings lying out to watch the stars; but it’s the shadiest groves he returns to again and again. Maybe he’s thinking of building the stockade there—though, to tell the truth, he hasn’t shown any sign yet of wanting to build anything. It’s peculiar, considering how time is ticking by. You’d have thought the island’s novelty would have started to wear off by now. On the contrary, it seems to keep growing on him. Early in the morning he’s dawdling in some meadow, his nose twitching with the freshness of the air. At midday he stretches out under a tree. The worry now is that he’s going to spend the rest of the day practicing t’ai chi ch’uan—we’ve seen that before. Whatever it is he’s up to, his eyes are always fixed on something, shining with wonderment—first a string of ants carrying their tiny loads, then a beetle digging its burrow, then some millipede circumnavigating a hummock. Time flies for him, though not necessarily for the rest of us.

As the days go on, it becomes more and more obvious that he hasn’t even bothered to read the book. He’s got no clue. It’s as if he’s never read a book in his life. Doesn’t he realize you can’t make a story about trees, caterpillars, feral pigs, and sunsets?! You need some kind of conflict. You need some kind of action. But that doesn’t appear to have ever crossed his mind. He can spend an entire day brewing a cup of herbal tea.

An original castaway, for sure. He makes detours to avoid destroying spider webs strung across the path. He goes on tiptoe through the woods so as not to crush any seedlings or ants. And in these small eccentricities maybe there is a germ of a story after all. Because as the years go by, his curious empathy starts to blossom into something more noteworthy. First he stops eating meat; then he gives up fish, eggs, plants, fungi, and compost. He takes to sleeping in a tree, so as not to crush some small animal by accident in the night. Eventually, to reduce his ecological footprint even further, he confines his movements to a single boulder deep in the woods. It’s not as lonely as it sounds. There are enough characters on that rock to keep someone like him entertained day and night: lichens, slugs, beetles, and little mites that scurry back and forth. . .

By now he’s no longer the energetic young explorer we once knew. He’s grown pale and thin, with shining black eyes. Yes, his fanatical lifestyle has taken its toll. With all that fasting, sitting cross-legged, and contemplating nature, the next step is inevitable. He achieves levitation. With practice, he can soon stay afloat for hours at a time. Now he’s free to drift from one corner of his beloved island to the other, silent and wispy as a strip of cloud. As sinister as his floating about seems at first (it scares the daylights out of Friday more than once), in time one has to admit that it’s really very charming. Here’s his misty form gliding between the trees at nightfall, like a will-o’-the-wisp; there it is reflected in the still waters of the lagoon, glimmering with starlight; here it is luminescing over the beach where long ago he washed ashore half-drowned, more dead than alive. . .

Even the sea turtles, peering out from under their leathery jackets, glance upward.


5. All these adventures, where are they leading? Who are they for? What do they mean? Here comes the fifth Crusoe to explain things. You can sense his determination by the way he strides out of the surf and surveys the island with a critical eye. He doesn’t need a wave to dump him on the beach, thank you very much. He’ll do without the obnoxious details. He’s going to get right to the point. Yes, things are just as he pictured them. There’s the promontory, there’s the lagoon. . . Time to get to work.

He starts with the trees—first those palms at the edge of the beach, then the cashews and breadfruits farther up the slope. He’s salvaged a hatchet from the shipwreck and he makes good progress, indifferent to the blisters that spring up on his palms. By the end of the day, he’s reduced a whole acre to matchsticks. The next day he’s up with the first light and it’s more of the same. Once in a while, to keep things lively, he spends a day chipping away at the cliffs and rolling boulders into the sea. On hot days he lays down his hatchet and sets fire to the felled trees. That cleans the land of everything but cinders; then it warms his heart to see the rain wash them into the ocean, burying the reefs in mud.

Nothing stands in his way, although for the first few weeks he’s haunted by a curious meteorological phenomenon: a slip of cloud that seems to hang just over his head wherever he goes, sprinkling him with salty raindrops. But eventually that nuisance, too, disappears for good. Now, unencumbered by vegetation and whimpering clouds, he turns his attention to the land itself. Hour by hour he hauls sacks of dirt down from the hillsides and dumps them into the ocean—and every day the cliffs shrink a little lower, as if they were melting in the sun.

By now it’s clear what he’s up to, this one. The question is, is he going to get away with it? At first it seems not—one afternoon a hurricane comes storming out of the east and pounds him for three days and nights. In those gale-force winds the hatchet is lost and all his sacks are blown away, but as the storm batters the island, what he sees through salt-stung eyes fills his heart with joy. In that apocalyptic weather the cliffs are melting away even faster than he had planned. By the time blue skies return, nothing remains of the island but a sandbar that’s underwater even at low tide. He’s standing on a sandbar in the middle of the ocean, looking perfectly satisfied with himself. It’s peculiar.

In less than a week the waves bring in the first castaway, coughing and swearing, grabbing at Crusoe’s knees. We don’t know what sort of words the two of them exchange—probably some sort of curt existentialist dialogue. In any case, the new arrival is glad to have washed up somewhere and grateful for a little company. No doubt the situation on that sandbar seems a little odd to him at first—but after that hellish drifting about on the open ocean it’s nothing to complain about.

Two weeks later a second sailor washes up, the next month a third. Now there are six of them on the sandbar. Now there are twelve. Now there are thirty-seven. After a while things start to get a little crowded, but there always seems to be space for one more person, even if they have to tread water or stand on someone else’s shoulders. As the years go by and more refugees wash up, the island starts to resemble its former self, at least from a distance—rolling hills, palm trees bending in the wind. Once you get closer, of course, you see it’s nothing but people, stacked every which way on top of each other. What you took for the chattering of parrots is the murmur of a hundred conversations.

Some of the castaways only know about Robinson Crusoe from the Saturday Night Live skit, though they’re too sheepish to ever admit it. And some of the Filipino cooks—country boys who’ve spent their whole lives working banana plantations and ships’ galleys—will never hear about him at all. It’s no big deal. There are a lot of other interesting characters in that crowd, and they’ve got plenty of stuff to talk about—they’ll never run out of topics!

It takes some patience now to pick out our Crusoe from all the others, but after some searching you can still find him, near the bottom—the same grim-looking fellow. Some years the island stands a little higher or a little lower, but otherwise things remain more or less the same. Those castaways have gotten used to the arrangement by now—which is disappointing for the rest of us. Because ever since the old landmasses disappeared under the waves, we’ve been drifting about the open ocean like everyone else, you and I: sunstruck, seasick, tormented by mirages, at the mercy of sharks and jellyfish, paddling first one way, then another. We try to keep up our spirits by telling each other that somewhere out here must still be an island that’s wild and uninhabited, more or less like the original. If only those palm trees would hurry up and appear on the horizon—to starboard, to port, whatever it’s called—if only we, too, could be given the chance to wash up on a perfectly empty beach, roll up our trouser legs, and make a go of it, we swear we’d do everything in our power to get the story straight.