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America's Crankiest Citizen : ONE LIFE AT A TIME, PLEASE by Edward Abbey (Henry Holt: $7.95, paper; 225 pp.)

January 24, 1988|Georgia Jones-Davis | Jones-Davis is assistant book review editor

Between Edward Abbey's precise words describing his journeys into the wilderness, you can hear the wind careening off canyon walls, the lonely cry of a bird, a brook bubbling over rocks. There is stillness here; moments of exquisite solitude recorded with a photographer's clean, clear sense of place.

Unfortunately, many of these fine moments are sandwiched inbetween repetitious kvetching and posturing, some of which can't be taken very seriously and some of which is just plain silly.

Abbey--author of 18 books including the acclaimed "Desert Solitaire" and "The Monkey Wrench Gang," is as savvy as a bobcat on the prowl. This chronicler of the contemporary American West cares ardently about changing the world, and writes as if his very life depended upon it. Yet at the same time, he knows that most who listen to his meditations and rantings nod in approval--or disapproval--and then comfortably carry on with their own lives.

"One Life at a Time, Please"--a modest-looking, red-and-cream-colored trade paperback--will leave you thinking about ideals and how easy, how almost inevitable, it is to grow older and part with them for the sake of comfort and survival. It is not exactly the kind of book that sends you to bed for a week out of sheer despair because you've seen a glimpse of how you should be living your life and it's so damn difficult, so impossible, that you can't think of a more effective action than no action at all. That's expecting Abbey to have written something on par with, say, the Pentateuch, Bible, Koran or "Das Kapital." But Abbey is always reaching for the stars and, from time to time, captures a sprinkle of stardust.

One complaint outright: The title is all wrong. "One Life at A Time, Please" sounds more like an affirmation of Shirley MacLaine's theory of reincarnation than a slender collection of essays about the wilderness, a writer's responsibility and outrageous personal opinions.

In fact, he's striking out against most of the tenets New Agers tend to hold dear. This guy's as square, xenophobic, sexist, and as unhip as you can get. Imagine: He pulled into Esalen without a reservation.

Abbey's a 20th-Century bearded mountain man who's traded in his buckskins for a 50-50 poly/cotton plaid shirt and 501s, and come down from the lonely peaks during the cold spell to tell us cityfolks, withering away in civilization, what we're missing, how we're blowing it, what we can do to get it right again.

"It is my belief that the writer, the free-lance author, should be and must be a critic of the society in which he lives," he states in his essay, "A Writer's Credo." And criticize, challenge, mock and even threaten he does.

There's no point paraphrasing Abbey. It's best to hand the rope directly over to him.

On solving the problem of over-grazed public range lands (an issue most city dweller's couldn't care less about, granted, but Abbey's response could make the most avid urbanite curious enough to read his other opinions on the subject):

"I . . . suggest we open a hunting season on the range cattle. I realize that beef cattle will not make sporting prey at first. Like all domesticated animals (including most humans), beef cattle are slow, stupid, and awkward. But the breed will improve if hunted regularly."

On Democracy, Anarchy :

Anarchism means maximum democracy. . . . An anarchist society consists of a voluntary association of self-reliant, self-supporting, autonomous communities. . . .

"If Lebanon were not so badly overpopulated, the best solution there--as in South Africa--would be a partition of territory, a devolution into self-governing, independent regions and societies. This is the natural tendency of any population divided by religion, race, or deeply cultural differences, and it should not be restrained."

On immigration : " . . . It would be wise for us as American citizens to consider calling a halt to the mass influx of even more millions of hungry, ignorant, unskilled, culturally-morally-genetically impoverished people. At least until we have brought own own affairs into order. Especially when these uninvited millions bring with them an alien mode of life which--let us be honest about this--is not appealing to the majority of Americans. Why not? Because we prefer democratic government, for one thing; because we still hope for an open, spacious, uncrowded, and beautiful . . . society, for another. The alternative, in the squalor, cruelty, and corruption of Latin America, is plain for all to see.

"Yes, I know, if the American Indians had enforced such a policy none of us pale-faced honkies would be here. But the Indians were foolish, and divided, and failed to keep our WASP ancestors out. They've regretted it ever since."

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