The Man Who Quit Money is Mark Sundeen’s fourth book and it is an exquisitely timed one. The turbulence of our economic class system, the tenuous future of our natural environment and the entire history of man’s inhumanity to man, whether for gain, gold or god, provide the perfect shotgun rider to this parable of modern struggle. The lifestyle chosen by the book’s nomadic protagonist, Daniel Suelo, riddles us this: Can we throw over the desire to financially prosper that has been cultivated in us from birth?
Sundeen has always been fast friends with the outsiders of the game. Fondness for his native Kalifornia kulture of weirdness has mixed with his writing for years. He is an affable, laidback guy who teases out the gist of a conversation no matter his political or philosophical bent. He follows Suelo into the desert to see if the myth of living without is probable. Dumpstered fried chicken and fundamentalist concepts around the fire lead to larger questions of individuals in a society of individuals—the fearless freaks, the ones who want to be them, the ones who want to save them and the ones who want to work them to death.
The Man Who Quit Money is a slim, quick read that belies the weightiness underneath. The very quality that makes us see a “man walking in America” (Suelo’s words) and be simultaneously attracted and repelled is exposed here in beautiful detail. Now, Sundeen spills his guts:
Indy: You’ve lived in trailer courts surrounded by beauty and intentional poverty surrounded by wealth. Past a certain age, what is it that makes one choose a simple life?
Sundeen: I always loved that vision of the Lost Generation living in Paris and being artists, and when I lived in San Francisco in 1991–1993, I realized that the famous bohemia was not a result merely of urban sophistication, but of economics. In S.F. I was going to have to work full time just to pay the rent, and that defeated the whole purpose of being there, to be a writer. So I moved somewhere where I could live for about $150 month rent: Moab, Utah. Yes, it was beautiful, and in those years it felt like real freedom, to only work eight months out of the year and then spend a lot of time writing. I didn’t appreciate it then, but the people I met living in school buses and growing their own food were actually the ones in dissent from hierarchical American life, much more than the ones living in cities, working office jobs 50 hours a week to support their “alternative” writing/art/music hobby.
Indy: Daniel Suelo grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home but has embraced a pantheistic worldview. He’s also gay. Yet not only do you find unconditional love in his family, he comes full-circle to acceptance of his faith. Is Daniel the most exceptional Christian you’ve ever met?
Sundeen: One of my favorite of Daniel’s lines is when an angry Christian said to him, “What, you think you can live like Jesus?” Daniel responded, “Well, yeah, don’t you?” Daniel would never claim to be a divine being or a prophet or the messiah. However, he does try to “live according to Jesus’ teaching” about sharing, non-possession, forgiving, and not just helping but actually living among the poor and marginalized. It raises a good question about who Jesus was, a question that has been debated for centuries. Those tending secular like to believe he was just a righteous human like the Buddha who walked the earth in robes and sandals teaching us how to be good. Those tending doctrinaire might say his teachings were secondary to his divinity: He is the son of God, and it doesn’t really matter how good of a person you try to be in this life, because if you believe, then you’re going to heaven. The first type sometimes tells Daniel, “Wow, that’s so great, you’re like Jesus!” While the second type says: “How dare you think you’re like Jesus!”
Indy: You describe three times in Daniel’s life where he has near-death experiences. You also write very Whitman-like passages about his body returning to the desert in the sustenance of animals and plants. He’s over 50 and healthy but aging. Did he speak to you about fears of mortality?
Sundeen: People ask me, “Yeah, but is he really happy?” and it’s forced me to think hard about how to define happiness. I mean, he’s often in a pretty good mood—does that mean he’s happy? Sometimes he’s lonely and miserable, too. But when I was asking him questions about dying, I realized he was really not afraid of it. He did not express a desire to live beyond this life, either spiritually or through family or through a pile of interest-accruing money. He seems to accept his fate to be eaten by ravens. I find that courage to be rare, which is how I ultimately decided that yes, he is pretty happy.
Indy: There’s a part in the book where you describe washing out a plastic baggie because you know you should but you really don’t want to. That resonates with many of us—being responsible is hard.
Sundeen: There are dozens of little conveniences that we’ve become accustomed to that, if we look at it soberly, are decadent and irresponsible. Filling the ocean with a Texas-sized swirl of plastic is just one of them. One of the loudest complaints about modern America is that we spend too much time in cars, driving out to box stores to fill up on foreign-made junk, because it saves time and money. But here in Missoula, we actually can choose to do it differently because we have a functioning downtown. From my house I am within walking or biking distance of just about anything I need to buy. The trade-off is that it takes more time and costs more money. So let’s say that in a two hour walking tour of downtown, I spend $100. I could have bought similar stuff on Brooks or Reserve Street for $80, in one hour. In my car trip, I’ve spent a miserable hour in order to save $20; I’ve given $80 to businesses whose models are unsustainable and make my town a crummier place to live. On my walking trip, I’ve enjoyed my two hours, I’ve run into friends, I’ve listened to someone playing music on the street, I’ve leaned over the river bridge and seen birds in the marsh, I’ve bought food from a local farmer that isn’t available for any price at Wal-Mart. I’m out $20 which means I’m just going to have to survive on less, but that extra $20 is now distributed among my neighbors, whose existence has enabled me to spend two hours that, while neither modern nor convenient, was quite enjoyable. Isn’t money something we use to improve our lives?
Mark Sundeen reads from The Man Who Quit Money at Shakespeare & Co. Wed., March 7, at 7 PM. Free.