Minimalists in Fiction: Jack Reacher

Old Summer Palace, Beijing

“Because we all reach a point where we’re burdened down with responsibilities & chores & errands & bureaucracy, & wouldn’t it be great just to get rid of it all & walk off into the sunset?”

– Lee Child, TNI interview

Jack Reacher, “good guy” and minimalist wanderer, is the main character in a series of novels (18 so far) written by Jim Grant under the pen name Lee Child. Last year, Jack Reacher, the movie adaptation of Child’s One Shot, starring Tom Cruise, was released.

I’d never read any Jack Reacher novels, but when my husband read 61 Hours, he recommended it to me because of some comments Reacher makes in the novel explaining his minimalist lifestyle.

“All this stuff you get bogged down into: the possessions you have, the home, the bills, the mortgage. Suppose you have none of that. I wrote him as owning nothing & not caring about it.”

– Lee Child, Christian Science Monitor interview

Reacher doesn’t own anything except a folding toothbrush, the clothes on his back, a passport, and an ATM card – and presumably a bank account to go with it. Instead of owning stuff, he buys new clothes every few days, disposing of the old ones.

Total damage was a hundred and thirty bucks. The store owner took a hundred and twenty for cash. Four days of wear, probably, at the rate of thirty dollars a day. Which added up to more than ten grand a year, just for clothes. Insane, some would say. But Reacher liked the deal. He knew that most folks spent much less than ten grand a year on clothes. They had a small number of good items that they kept in closets and laundered in basements. But the closets and basements were surrounded by houses, and houses cost a whole more than ten grand a year, to buy or to rent, and to maintain and repair and insure.

So who was really nuts?

In response to a suggestion he carry a small bag, Reacher says:

To fill a small bag means selecting and choosing and evaluating. There’s no logical end to that process. Pretty soon, I’d have a big bag, and then two or three. A month later, I’d be like the rest of you.

Looking for more information about Reacher’s lifestyle, I also read Worth Dying For. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go into much detail about Reacher’s lifestyle. There’s one good exchange though:

Reacher: I’m already rich.

Bad guy: You don’t look it. I’m serious. Lots of money.

Reacher: I’ve got everything I need. That’s the definition of affluence.

“Since the financial crisis hit, people are realizing you don’t own things; things own you. You might enjoy the stuff you’ve accumulated, but you don’t enjoy the debt. People are beginning to have an uneasy relationship with possessions. They would like to walk away from the things weighing them down. That is how Reacher lives.”

– Lee Child, Playboy interview

I’m not fond enough of thrillers to read through the whole series any time soon, but, thanks to the wonders of Google Books, I found some other good quotes.

In Bad Luck and Trouble, a friend points out that Reacher could have kept the old shirt instead of tossing it. Reacher responds:

Slippery slope. I carry a spare shirt, pretty soon I’m carrying spare pants. Then I’d need a suitcase. Next thing I know, I’ve got a house and a car and a savings plan and I’m filling out all kinds of forms.

Running Blind explains:

And the idea of property worried him. His whole life, he had never owned more than would fit into his pockets. As a boy he had owned a baseball and not much else. As an adult he had once gone seven whole years without owning anything at all except a pair of shoes he preferred to the Defense Department issue. Then a woman bought him a wallet with a clear plastic window with her photograph in it. He lost touch with the woman and junked the photograph, but kept the wallet. Then he went the remaining six years of his service life with just the shoes and the wallet. After mustering out he added a toothbrush. It was a plastic thing that folded in half and clipped into his pocket like a pen. He had a wristwatch. It was Army issue, so it started out theirs and became his when they didn’t ask for it back. And that was it. Shoes on his feet, clothes on his back, small bills in his pants, big bills in his wallet, a toothbrush in his pocket, and a watch on his wrist.

Book 16 and a series prequel, The Affair, provides the background on Reacher’s lifestyle. It began when, as a major in the military police, he went undercover in a military investigation.

I…found a kind of half-sized travel toothbrush. I liked it. The business end was nested in a clear plastic case, and it pulled out and reversed and clipped back in, to make it full-length and ready to use. It was obviously designed for a pocket.

I laced my shoes and put my toothbrush in my pocket with a pack of gum and a roll of bills. I left everything else behind. No ID, no wallet, no watch, no nothing.

“Would the nomadic Jack, who owns little more than a toothbrush, change his decor every few years to fulfill some furniture fantasy in the manner of his creator?”

– Joanne Kaufman, New York Times

According to a Wall Street Journal article, Reacher’s Minimalist Roost, Child says he fantasizes about living a life like Reacher. The article goes on to say, “So if a button falls off his shirt, Mr. Child casts the shirt in the garbage, as he doesn’t want to store a sewing kit.”

Yet Child paid $1.5 million for his apartment in 2005, spending $800,000 on remodeling. And this isn’t where Child writes – he has a second apartment in the same building for that – as well as to store the stuff he owns but doesn’t want cluttering up his home.

While Child has been married for decades, these two apartments are primarily just for him. According to the WSJ article, his wife “currently spends most of her time at their homes in the south of France and Rye, N.Y., which she decorated in more of a country style.” The New York Times recently published an article about Child titled The Macho of Minimalism, which mentions a new vacation property in the English countryside.

Child says, “I love minimalism, which to me is more than a decorative style. It’s a fundamental choice which ties into my character Jack Reacher. He has this desire – he wants everything he needs and nothing he doesn’t.”

 Are Jack Reacher and Lee Child really minimalists?

I get that minimalism is an artistic and decorative style, not just a simple lifestyle. But Child seems to think he’s a minimalist in the simple-life sense, although he owns 2 apartments and 2 houses. He even has three desks in his office. It would seem nearly everyone is a minimalist if the definition of “need” is that broad.

Not that I want to be a minimalist in the sense Reacher is either. Like many other minimalists, I’m concerned about the environment, and throwing away a couple of outfits (which he buys new) every week is certainly not a sustainable practice. Also, I’m not fond of shopping and would rather do laundry than buy new clothes – though I realize I may be in the minority on that one.

For fun (or if you think you’d really like to live like Reacher) check out the Jack Reacher retirement plan, which calculates the cost of living like Reacher is about $2300 per month.

2 thoughts on “Minimalists in Fiction: Jack Reacher

  1. Hi Christy, What a fun and funny post. You have described two characters (one real and one fictional) who claim to be minimalists, but I don’t believe it, and neither do you!

    I think Sue Grafton’s character Kinsey Millhone is the “real deal.” I think you would like her!

    On a different note, I LOVE your photo. It’s just beautiful!

    • Thanks, Carol – it’s from the Old Summer Palace in Beijing, from our trip a few years ago.

      I’ll have to check out Sue Grafton – I’ve been meaning to read some of her books but haven’t gotten around to it. After all there are only about 150 books on the “list” I keep on the library website…added to nearly every day so I never make any progress! I’ll bump her up on the list.

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