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Know the West

Living on faith: A review of The Man Who Quit Money


The Man Who Quit Money
Mark Sundeen
272 pages,
softcover: $15.
Riverhead Trade, 2012.

The title grabs your attention: The Man Who Quit Money. Intrigued, you open the book and read: "In the first year of the twenty-first century, a man standing by a highway in the middle of America pulled from his pocket his life savings -- thirty dollars -- laid it inside a phone booth, and walked away." He must have been on drugs or a nutcase, you think. But no, you discover, reading on: Daniel Suelo, a 39-year-old, well-educated and apparently rational man, had simply decided to act on his belief that he'd be taken care of if he followed the advice of St. Francis of Assisi: "If we embrace holy poverty very closely, the world will come to us and will feed us abundantly."

More than a decade before Suelo's life-changing decision, Mark Sundeen, the book's author, worked with him briefly in Moab, Utah. When Sundeen heard about Suelo's moneyless lifestyle, he was struck by the different paths they'd chosen. Intrigued, he tracked down his former co-worker, who was still living in the Moab area. The two men renewed their acquaintance by going dumpster diving, picking melons from an abandoned garden, and digging wild onions. It didn't take long to "harvest" enough food to last several days and pack it off to Suelo's residence: a cave situated on public lands located "a two-hour walk from pavement." Illumination inside it came from burning cotton cords floating in glass jars filled with vegetable oil, and the cooking was done on a ventilated "number-ten chili can." Living permanently on public land is illegal, and once, after Suelo was caught, he unsuccessfully argued his case before a judge. He paid his fine with hours of community service, and then settled into a smaller, more isolated cave.

Suelo has many strong opinions about capitalism and religion, which he expresses freely on his blog, accessing the Internet via a public library computer. Hostile readers have called him lazy, a freeloader, and worse. But Sundeen keeps a cool head as he weaves facts, timelines and anecdotes into a fascinating story, researching everything from Suelo's grade-school years to the history of banking. What he discovered about the defining moment in Suelo's life will give readers a lot to think about. Ultimately, Suelo decided, our attachment to money is about our fear of death: "Money perpetuated the fantasy of immortal earthly life, the illusion that we could determine the future." Sundeen concludes that, despite his critics, Suelo is still a productive citizen, a sort of "freelance philosopher." He just doesn't receive -- or want -- a paycheck.