Monday, November 8, 2010

Edward Abbey lives!

The unhappy results of our latest election, driven in large part by the greed of corporocracy, set me to thinking about war against the forces of lucre. Sadly, I would make a poor bomb-thrower, but there was once a fellow who was a great one: the late Edward Abbey, author (Desert Solitaire) and wild-eyed eco-radical (The Monkey Wrench Gang). This morning I dug out a 20-year-old review of one of his books written for the Chicago Sun-Times. (It is reprinted without permission. Come get me, corporate legal punks. Bring it on.)

By Henry Kisor
Chicago Sun-Times, January 27, 1990

As with movies, sequels to celebrated novels rarely measure up to the originals. Their newness has long since worn off: we've already encountered the premise and met the characters. Anything further the author may have to say about them is likely to be anticlimactic.

The late Edward Abbey's Hayduke Lives! (Little, Brown, $18.95) is no exception to that rule, but it's jolly great fun nonetheless. It's a sequel to The Monkey Wrench Gang of 1975, Abbey's wonderfully subversive comic tale about a ragtag bunch of environmental guerrillas. Their mission: Chainsawing down roadside billboards and sugaring the gas tanks of earthmoving machinery, all the while plotting the destruction of Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona.

Edward Abbey
The Monkey Wrench Gang was both extraordinarily funny and extremely angry, and it has never gone out of print, to date selling more than half a million copies. "Monkeywrenching" is now in the permanent lexicon of environmentalism. Some critics even declared the novel the Walden of the movement.

Others likened it to Mein Kampf, but they missed the point: Abbey was indulging in hyperbolic satire in the service of a noble cause. He wasn't necessarily advocating criminal destruction of property - just kicking a few shins in order to focus environmentalist anger on a clear and immediate target.

If you harbor the slightest heartbeat of sympathy for monkeywrenching, you'll enjoy Hayduke Lives!, the further adventures of George Washington Hayduke, ex-Green Beret, ex-Viet Cong medic, lover, brawler, saboteur, all-around troublemaker and spiritual head of the Monkey Wrench Gang. Last seen clinging to a cliff at the end of the first novel as a posse and a helicopter closed in, Hayduke returns from the apparent dead in the new novel, ready for more.

For a new monster in the service of evil against the Earth has appeared: G O L I A T H the G.E.M. of Arizona, 22 stories tall, 120 feet wide, 13,500 tons of giant earthmover from Bucyrus-Erie, the world's largest mobile land machine. With it, Syn-Fuels Limited, a conglomerate of politicians, Mormon moneymen and Bureau of Land Management mountebanks, will carve an uranium strip mine half a mile wide and 400 feet deep out of the gloriously beautiful mile-high tablelands of Lost Eden Canyon near the Utah-Arizona border.

For Hayduke's cause, almost too much time has passed. The rest of the Gang is spiritually moribund, comfortable in its post-protest existence. Doc Sarvis, onetime heart surgeon, is now a contented pediatrician. Bonnie Abbzug, Brooklyn feminist and Hayduke's ex-lover, has become Doc's wife, with one child and one on the way. And Seldom Seen Smith, jack Mormon and triple polygamist, is a dude wrangler and merry womanizer.

Can Hayduke light their fires again? Will they plunge anew into his gallant battle against mechanized greed? Upon that question the novel hangs.

On the way to its resolution the author delivers himself of several splendidly Abbeyian set pieces, Cactus Ed at his finest. In one, much of his scorn is heaped upon his own followers, notably those belonging to Earth First! (a trademarked name). To Abbey, Earth First!ers and other organized environmentalists would rather publicize and speechify than risk their lives and reputations for their cause. ("There was a time when men loved ideas; now they get by with slogans.")

There's a splendid clash, like rutting elk, between two mighty 'dozers (Hayduke astride a Cat D-7), a hilarious disruption of a Syn-Fuels board meeting by a crazed charlady (Hayduke in drag), and a gigantic trashing of a Syn-Fuels computer room (Hayduke with nerd specs and clipboard).

There are bawdy scenes and funny scenes (Bonnie and Hayduke suddenly bare-naked together in a mountain waterhole, against her wishes but not his, and with interesting consequences). There is a mighty climactic battle between the Monkey Wrench Gang and G O L I A T H, with Hayduke in the driver's seat.

As in any Abbey work, there are achingly beautiful stretches of praise for the divine, unspoiled wilderness, prose offered upon a wild altar ad majorem Terra gloriam. And the novel ends on a note of hope, as if Abbey believed there is still time to save the wilderness. Nature can bounce back if we only give it a chance.

But much of Abbey's less attractive side is also here. He was always an excessive writer, flailing a large and knobby cudgel at a host of irrelevant bystanders. He never liked feminism, for instance, believing it led to androgynous horrors. In this new novel he sticks it to an old straw woman of his, yuppie working mothers "with their children abandoned all day five days a week in pink and blue Day-Glo Tee-Vee Jailhouse Kiddie Kare storage centers." That wasn't convincing then and it isn't convincing now.

Nor are his fulminations against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. In the main, Mormons are not a pack of inbred, moronic right-wing eco-brutalists, even if (as Abbey complains unnecessarily) they drink rivers of caffeine-laden Pepsi-Cola, coffee being forbidden to them.

Ultimately, too, this novel feels unfinished, unpolished, its loose threads a little too abruptly gathered into a lumpy knot. Presumably Abbey had not completed it before his death at the early age of 62. Whether it would have been a better novel had he lived is impossible to say.

But enough - more than enough - of Abbey's cantankerous old genius remains in this merry eco-caper to show us what we lost when he was laid to rest last March at a secret and unspoiled spot in his beloved Sonoran Desert.

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