Disparate essays, written for various publications under differing circumstances, when flung together tend to vary wildly in quality. Certainly that's the case with this book. In his concluding section, sardonically named "Living Off the Fat of the Land," Page Stegner finds a raffish picaresque tone, immensely likable and jaunty, reminiscent of Steinbeck in "Cannery Row." He recounts in hilarious, self-effacing detail his attempts--with the help and hindrance of some friends--first, to buy and raise a cow for inexpensive beef; next, to hunt "wild boar," which turn out to be a neighbor's domestic pigs; and finally, to buy and operate a small fishing boat. Disasters all, but Stegner has fun with his own foibles and you won't find a polemical sentence anywhere in the section.
But polemics are what most of this book is about, and that's where things get problematic. Stegner wants to be another Edward Abbey. He wants to be the eloquent defender of American wilderness. He wants to be sarcastically funny about those who don't share his views. He wants to evoke the beauty and strangeness of the deserts and Badlands of the West. Abbey is irreplaceable, but Stegner doesn't get close, partly because he adopts a persona that rings false.
His subtitle reveals his pose: a curmudgeon. It's a bad mistake. That persona is mostly unpleasant and unfair. Sometimes it's only a matter of inappropriate exaggeration: The alfalfa sprout is "another West Coast invention similar to atropine." Sometimes it's repellent: Bemoaning the undeniably despicable off-road vehicle abuse of the deserts, he offers a purportedly humorous wish to some bikers that when they reach the interstate they experience "a high-torque, full-throttle, speedwobble across the highway divider into the oncoming grill of an eighteen-wheeler." And in another essay, after viewing the grotesque spectacle of thousands of tourists at Grand Canyon Lodge on Memorial Day, Stegner writes: "We need a national program of euthanasia."
I recall an old Ed Abbey piece called "The Winnebago Tribe," in which Abbey first recounted his essay scorn of the paleface hordes clogging up highways and campgrounds with their road monsters, but then "learned" from a sweet and salty old widow who'd carved out a meaningful nomad's life for herself traveling around North America in her Winnebago. Stegner's curmudgeon character would never meet that woman, never hear her story.
Even his students, UC Santa Cruz environmental studies majors, get the treatment. A rafting trip down the San Juan River with a group of them reveals Stegner's contempt for their looks (one girl is "flat-headed and short-necked, shoulders like a nose tackle, no waist, no hips, no glutes. All stem from the armpits down"), their eating habits, their music, their ignorance, their bickering.
Miners, and ranchers who graze cattle on public lands, become automatic faceless enemies in these essays--greed incarnate, but not real people with real interests; Stegner never deems it important to hear their voices.
But no matter how morally pure, a writer must still make his case. He can't assume, as I believe Stegner often does, that saying something makes it so, that if he says X is good and Y is bad, the reader must automatically accept it. In 1980, on land near Grand Canyon National Park, an immensely rich uranium deposit was discovered. Stegner frets about the fate of that land. But he doesn't grapple with the issues posed. Do we ignore this uranium deposit? How much uranium do we need, and where else do we get it from?
Like the National Review critic chagrined to find himself defending Lillian Hellman against the ad hominem attacks of right-wing historian Paul Johnson, I find myself sharing most of Stegner's views and biases but rebelling against the smug cocksureness of their expression.
I think what I miss most in these essays on the American West--and what Abbey always conveyed--are a sense of joy (curmudgeons have a tough time with joy) and a consistent feel for the sensuous detail that can bring alive the harsh beauty of these untamed and unpeopled lands. Too often, instead, come dreary recitals of place names and routes: ". . . We drive south from the Owyhees, past the canyon of the Bruneau and through the Duck Valley Indian Reservation into the Independence Mountains where the headwaters of the Owyhee River now collect in a reservoir behind Wild Horse Dam." Elsewhere, describing a rafting trip on the Missouri River, Stegner refers suddenly to his "idiotic son" along on the trip but never tells us his age nor what he's like.
To be sure, there are lovely moments in these essays when Stegner does hit it just right. Traversing a desert, he says, ". . . if you hang around long enough for all that hammered, blasted, barren, awful, stifling strata to begin to look natural you begin to notice subtle distinctions. Color for instance." And then he makes perceptive and absolutely true observations of those colors and how they begin to appear to an adapting vision.
Those moments, and the wonderful stories that round off the book, show Stegner at his best, and that best is very good indeed. If only there were more of it.