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Novelist Edward Abbey Would Still Love to Tear Down Tucson City Hall

January 03, 1988|BOB SIPCHEN

TUCSON — Edward Abbey lives in the Sonoran desert, surrounded by things he loves--and, increasingly, by things he hates.

When the 60-year-old author of such cult classics as "The Monkey Wrench Gang" and "Desert Solitaire" moved to this 4 1/2-acre lot 10 years ago, the city of Tucson hovered in the distance like a brick-and-steel mirage. Now civilization is closing in on Abbey, whose latest collection of essays, "One Life at a Time Please," is due out this month.

Renegade environmentalist George Washington Hayduke, Abbey's most famous character, professed the credo "Always pull up survey stakes. Anywhere you find them." But pink strips of plastic flutter atop wooden stakes all along the roadways leading up to the Abbey family's modest spread.

Abbey's '73 Ford pickup, geranium hood ornament twitching, bucks through the dry arroyos like a raft through big rapids. And, as the dust settles, one sees that realty signs--the descendants of survey stakes--have sprouted like garish weeds among the tall saguaro cacti.

Aircraft of every description drone across a sky that's often silty with smog and the alkaline dust of development. And the police training facility, golf course and "desert ashram" nearby can't sit well with this anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment, anarchist denouncer of all mystical pretensions.

Given Abbey's hatred of most everything the past couple decades engendered, it's little wonder that reviewers of Abbey's six novels, six previous collections of essays and five coffee table-type photographic collaborations have tended to draw from the same section of the thesaurus in describing him: "ornery," "irascible," "cantankerous," "iconoclastic," "crusty," "atavistic," "cranky."

Face to face, though, Abbey's sculpted sandstone features melt more frequently into gentle expressions than angry ones. About the only thing that really seems to tick him off is the suggestion that perhaps he's mellowing.

"I feel rage and outrage quite often," he said. "I'd gleefully take part in a violent revolution--I'd love to go down to city hall in Tucson and tear it down. I'm getting more radical as I get older."

There's some evidence to support that contention.

Abbey isn't choosy about where he launches his hit-and-run intellectual attacks.

An Abbey-inspired skirmish over the environmental impact of AIDS in the January-February issue of Utne Reader has prompted that publication to devote a coming issue to address the conflict between "social justice and population/environmental concerns."

Highs, Lows of Decade

Last October, Outside magazine asked Abbey, who it headlined "Cactus Ed," to write an almanac of the high and low points of the last decade. It went like this:

"LOW POINT--Beef ranchers in Montana and Wyoming harvest 155 'troublesome' grizzlies."

"HIGH POINT--Grizzlies in Montana and Wyoming harvest 22 'troublesome' tourists. . . ."

"HIGH POINT--A drunk in the process of systematically felling cacti on the outskirts of Tucson by blasting them with a shotgun is crushed by a gutshot saguaro. . . ."

And long-time Abbey detractors will find potent fuel in "One Life at a Time Please," which has something to offend just about everyone.

Some folks, for instance, probably won't like his essay, "The Future of Sex," in which he declares, "A world of androgynes, encapsulated in beehive cities, fiddling with buttons penile, electronic and clitoral--that is the future beloved alike by the technocratic futurologists and the thoroughly logical radical feminists."

And his opening essay, "The Cowboy and his Cow"--which barbecues the most sacred bovine of the American West in calling cattlemen "nothing more than welfare parasites"--drew an epistemological fusillade from such respected Western writers as Ralph Beers and Gretel Ehrlich when it appeared in Harper's magazine.

Erlich and other recent arrivals to the Western deserts, mountains and rangelands are "instant rednecks," Abbey said.

Abbey was born in 1927 on a small farm in Appalachia. His father drove a school bus, worked in the coal mines and did small-scale logging to help make ends meet.

After a stint in the Army, in 1946 Abbey hitchhiked west. He studied English and philosophy--the classical Greeks--at the University of New Mexico, then set out on a life of writing, financed by laboring at other jobs part-time or part of the year.

He worked for the Forest Service and the Park Service off and on for almost two decades. He also worked as an asphalt inspector on highway projects, as a television and automobile assembly line worker, ditch digger, roughneck in the oil-fields, public welfare case worker.

"For most of those years," he said, "I was living right around the official poverty line. . . . I pounded survey stakes before I ever got the notion to pull them out."

But he did eventually get that notion, perhaps during his first tour of duty with the Park Service, which he turned into "Desert Solitaire," a 20th-anniversary edition of which will be released early next year.

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