Oh, the Sisyphean unendingness of American literature. With over 50,000 new titles a year, you shouldn’t feel frustrated at gaps. But when you read an eloquent eulogy like Edward Hoagland’s of Edward Abbey in the May 7th New York Times Book Review, you rue that you didn’t get to know this authentic geezer sooner.
The eco-raider Abbey left his native Appalachia on a rail (road) at 17, where he had been engendered idiosyncratically by a WCTU mother and a Wobbly organizer of a father (who still cuts hickory fence posts for a living.) I like his father’s given names—Paul Revere.
After five wives, five children and six decades of never suffering technologizing fools gladly, Abbey was buried out in the desert West he loved truly—under stones piled to keep his buddies the coyotes from metabolizing what was left of him, and several pseudograves to keep Ph.D. students of the future in a froth of frustration.
His funeral was a 12-hour debauch in a wilderness outside Tucson, attended by the kind of unpersuadable haters of progress for whom Abbey set a very high standard.
Hoagland’s praise sent me scuttling to the Torresdale Free Library branch where, lo and behold, they had Abbey’s most popular book (500,000 sold in paperback), The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975). It’s a romp for the Greens of this Earth.
The book’s four principals share a passion to subvert the industrial corruption of those wide-open spaces. One is an Albuquerque surgeon on the brink of middle-age who sets the stage for the novel’s theme of eco-terrorism by burning down billboards with the Bronx Jewish girl of his choice.
All billboards bug them, but especially ones like WONDER ENRICHED BREAD HELPS BUILD STRONG BODIES 12 WAYS. And political malarkey like WHAT’S WRONG WITH BEING RIGHT? JOIN THE JOHN BIRCH SOCIETY. But any old obfuscation of nature will do.
And when the advertising industry ups their ante by putting up steel stanchions, Doc and Bonnie go just technological enough to undo their sworn enemies. Doc’s bumper sticker puts their credo succinctly: GOD BLESS AMERICA; LET’S SAVE SOME OF IT. It’s a gloss on one of Abbey’s favorite resolves: Let’s keep the world the way it was.
Returning the Colorado River to its pristine pre-Glen Canyon Dam condition is the highest ambition of the most knowledgeable of the Gang of Four—Seldom Seen Smith, a failed Mormon whose nickname alludes to the state of his several wives, who are salted like caches of food and supplies throughout the territory.
And George Washington Hayduke, a Green Beret whose advanced seminar in technological disaster was picked up in the course of his Vietnam service. He is more than mildly nutty from the experience, and Abbey’s deft interweaving of how our high tech-warriors in Nam are a piece with the oil, coal, uranium and power predators “improving” the four corners of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico is one of the most successful parts of his fiction.
This foursome never does get to the often-fantasized destruction of the Glen Canyon Dam, although Abbey’s sweetly ironic ending implies that Hayduke has resurrected himself from the dead to become a “security” guard inside the dam. Hot Dam, they seem to conclude.
Two kinds of expertise give a satisfying verisimilitude to their varied maneuvers. We learn—bolt by bolt, almost—how to decommission big Caterpillar tractors and other construction gear, how to blow up railroads, how to (almost) deconstruct ferroconcrete canyon bridges with thermite.
The almost-video-game violence of this capers encapsulates Abbey’s hatred for industrialism and all its works and pomps. The other expertise is the knowledge of the land they need to elude the posses which misconstrue the epidemic of mayhem as part of the American Indian Movement.
Their AIM is deeper than that of the indigenes. It’s a dream of returning to the status quo ante—keeping the world the way it once was. The chases they engage in are epic in scope. You’ll be amazed and pleased how often, how intelligently, and how long they elude the law.
Ironically, it’s the Hippocratic Oath that catches the doctor and his girl friend. They’re too civilized to defeat the barbarians of progress and power. The story once in a while takes on New Masses cartoonishness. But the characters are so feisty, you forget and forgive.
I will close this grateful discovery the way Hoagland does, quoting from Abbey’s Appalachian Wilderness: ”How strange and wonderful is our home, our earth, with its swirling vaporous atmosphere, it’s flowing and frozen climbing creatures, and croaking things with wings that hang on rocks and soar through fog, the furry grass, the scaly seas … how utterly rich and wild … Yet some among us have the nerve, the insolence, the brass, the gall to whine about the limitations of our earthbound fate and yearn for some more perfect world beyond the sky. We are none of us good enough for the world we have.”
Coda: Political Life Imitates Art. Dick Russell in “Earth Last!”, The Nation (July 17): “Some fifty agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation—in helicopters, on horseback and on foot with bloodhounds—lit up the desert sky with flares and moved in on our four environmentalists who, in the Arizona darkness, were about to cut the power line to a pumping plant along the Central Arizona Project, a massive and controversial irrigation canal staunchly opposed by conservationists.
“One of the four ‘monkeywrenchers,’ an FBI undercover agent who called himself Mike Tait, abruptly vanished. Peg Millet of the Earth First! speakers' bureau and two activists from Prescott, Mark Davis and Marc Baker, were taken into custody.”
from Welcomat: After Dark – Hazard-at-Large, August 2, 1989