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Originally published Saturday, March 3, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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Book review

'The Man Who Quit Money': Foreswearing the almighty dollar

Mark Sundeen's "The Man Who Quit Money" is the story of Daniel Suelo, a spiritual seeker who decided to entirely forgo depending on cash. For 12 years, he's "managed the unmanageable" in contemporary America — a life without money.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'The Man Who Quit Money'

by Mark Sundeen

Riverhead, 260 pp., $15

In the winter of 2001, Daniel Suelo unfolded his last $30, left the bills on a pay phone at a Pennsylvania truck stop and never looked back. In the 12 years since, Suelo has managed the unimaginable in contemporary America, a life without money. More surprisingly, he's accomplished it graciously, without mooching from friends or family or accepting government assistance. In fact he is an engaged, even respected, member of his community.

Suelo lives part of the time in caves, forages for food in the desert, and avails himself of supermarket Dumpsters. But he is neither hermit nor derelict. He maintains an active website and blog using a computer at the public library. He volunteers at a shelter for women and children. He is the subject of a widely read magazine article (and volumes of online chat both praising and criticizing him). He stays in touch with a wide network of friends and remains close to his family.

In Mark Sundeen's captivating biography, Suelo emerges as a remarkable and complex character: a spiritual seeker, one-time religious studies major, Peace Corps alumnus and former social worker. He grew up gay in a strict fundamentalist family, wrestled seriously with his spiritual identity, and has struggled through depression, rejection and personal crisis.

From boyhood, Suelo strove to live his life based on Christ's teachings. In college, he broadened his readings to include the religious teachings of Buddha, Ramakrishna, Saint Francis and Gandhi. Friends told him it was impossible to live up to those archaic standards in the modern world.

His personal life echoed their warnings; he was repulsed by the runaway capitalism and corporate complicity of the 1990s. Even in his adopted desert community of Moab, Utah, a haven for wanderers of all stripes, the demands and contradictions of the cash economy threw hurdles across his chosen path.

As Sundeen vividly recounts, Suelo tried everything before freeing himself from cash: vegan farming collectives, meditating in a Buddhist monastery in Thailand, even living off the land in the Alaskan wilds. At one point, hopelessly depressed and driven to desperate measures, he attempted suicide by driving his car off a mountain road. Miraculously, he survived.

Sundeen frames this turning point in mythic terms, "Daniel ... died as a modern man driving his car off a cliff, and was reborn as an eternal man — without money or possessions."

Through interviews with Suelo, his friends, family and associates, and close readings of his letters and web postings, Sundeen brings his subject vividly to life. By exploring Suelo's philosophic underpinnings and contrasting them with recent economic upheavals, he makes a case for Suelo's relevance to our time. A close friend of Suelo put it succinctly, "He wants to have the smallest ecological footprint and the largest possible impact at improving the world." If so, Suelo is wildly successful in the first part of the goal. Sundeen compares his carbon footprint to that of an Ethiopian's: "about one half of 1 percent of an American's."

As for the second part, he's working on it. "Somebody has to take the first step to escape from servitude of money," Suelo wrote. "Digging a tunnel out of the prison, and then showing fellow prisoners that life outside the prison is abundant ... that is the challenge."

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