The Man Who Quit Money, by Mark Sundeen
a review

Mark Sundeen had an impossible task to complete: write a book about a man who hasn’t used money in 12 years, lives in a cave, and does not barter, exchange, or compromise. That man, Daniel Suelo, was approached to write a book himself, to which he replied “Only if you’ll give it away for free.” Since publishers don’t exactly line up around the block to do things for free, Suelo declined and Sundeen stepped in to complete the task. The result is The Man Who Quit Money.

The story of Daniel Shellabarger, who now goes by just Suelo, or Dan, is gripping. He was raised in a fundamentalist Christian family and spent decades in pursuit of spiritual understanding and wisdom. As a social worker he struggled with the inability of organizational causes to actually help - in his opinion, too much bureaucracy stood in the way of true good deeds and basic generosity. As a human being he struggled with depression, romance, sexuality and identity in a world where too much was based on the conceit of trading in false currency, money or otherwise. He recoiled against organized religion’s two-headedness - live like Jesus and be looked down on, gather earthly riches and be praised.

While much of Suelo’s story has to do with spirituality, just as much does not. Every once in a while you happen upon a tale that’s just plain interesting, and Suelo’s is one. Just as fascinating as the kind and genuine Suelo is Moab, thanks to Sundeen’s skillful depiction of the desert landscape, lifestyle and funky history. Sundeen casts a good hook - Suelo’s depositing of his ‘life savings’ (if $30 can be called a life savings) in a phone booth and his decade-long journey into caves, house-sitting, dumpster-diving, hitchhiking. Some of the most interesting stories, though, come from before Suelo abandoned finance, when he was still floundering in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, working on boats and hiking Denali. The lessons he learned en route to his lifestyle, which he insists is anything but impoverished, are illustrative for everyone. The randomness of chance that again and again delivered Suelo from harm along his journey is a particularly good motif.

Where Sundeen succeeds in describing the landscape that surrounds Suelo and Suelo himself, he wrestles with maintaining neutrality and avoiding blowing the horn of preservationist, moneyless agenda. There is a little too much Sundeen, if you will, in a big chunk of the book. Specifically, there is too much of Sundeen’s guilt. One can hardly blame him, though, as who wouldn’t feel guilt describing a selfless man who lives in a cave and hasn’t bought anything in twelve years? But the preachy undercurrent of “commerce and capitalism are bad, sharing is good” begins to nag at you almost immediately and doesn’t stop. Many a topic, including the history of currency, is over-simplified and presented in terms so biased as to provoke an eye-roll. Nonetheless, harking back to the impossibility of Sundeen’s task, it’s hard to find too much fault. Suelo’s story of living abundantly with the aim of freely giving and freely receiving is mostly allowed to shine.

Well-recommended. Riverhead Books/ Penguin, New York, 2012. 978-1-59448-569-5.

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