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Edward Abbey: Critic and Crusader

January 23, 2000|DOUGLAS BRINKLEY | Douglas Brinkley is director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies and professor of history at the University of New Orleans. His essay will be the introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of "The Monkey Wrench Gang" to be published by HarperPerennial this spring

The windmill Abbey wanted to tear down most was the Glen Canyon Dam, constructed in 1962 just 60 miles north of the Grand Canyon, a 792,000-ton hydraulic monstrosity that had cost U.S. taxpayers $750 million to build. This concrete colossus had stemmed the natural flow of the Colorado River, desecrating the steep gorges of the magnificent Glen Canyon that Abbey imagined grander than all the cathedrals in Europe. Gone forever in the dam's building were groves of cottonwood and thickets of tamarisk, wolves' dens and eagles' nests, natural sandstone spires and ancient archeological sites. In their place--man-made Lake Powell, a reservoir with a 1,800-mile shoreline that Abbey dubbed "the blue death." Glen Canyon Dam was a pork barrel project ostensibly built to provide Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix with affordable electric power; in fact, it was an engineering abomination that destroyed an entire ecosystem. Even the dam's conservative sponsor--Arizona Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater--would eventually admit that its construction had been a terrible mistake. "I think of the river as it was when I was a boy," he said. "And that is the way I would like to see it again."

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It was with a bellyful of bile over Glen Canyon Dam that Abbey began writing "The Monkey Wrench Gang" in the early 1970s, putting black humor, theater gimmicks and clever characterizations together to form what would become a lasting cult classic. Drawing on facets of real people he knew, Abbey created an inspired cast of antiheroes: George Washington Hayduke, a former Green Beret medic in Vietnam who loved bombs, booze and the great outdoors almost as much as he despised developers; Doc Sarvis, a rich Albuquerque heart specialist whose hobby was burning billboards; Bonnie Abzug, a preternaturally sexy, sharp-tongued and endearing Jewish exile from the Bronx; and Seldom Seen Smith, a Mormon riverboat guide and watermelon rancher with three neglected wives.

In what Newsweek approvingly reviewed as an "ecological caper," this gaggle of good-time anarchists mobilize themselves SWAT-like to harass power companies and logging conglomerates. Like their hero Neal Ludd--an early 19th century British weaver who provoked his countrymen to save their jobs by sabotaging machinery in the early days of the Industrial Revolution and to whom Abbey dedicated the novel--the Monkey Wrenchers develop into a charismatic clique of eco-nuisances who pour Karo syrup into bulldozers' fuel tanks, snip barbed-wire fences and try to blow up a coal train, all in preparation for their real objective: dynamiting Glen Canyon Dam to bits. Their battle cry is "Keep it like it was."

"The Monkey Wrench Gang" is far more than just a controversial book: It is revolutionary, anarchic, seditious and, in the wrong hands, dangerous. Although Abbey claimed it was just a work of fiction written to "entertain and amuse," the novel was swiftly embraced by eco-activists frustrated with the timid approaches of mainstream environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society. To the radical-minded, Abbey's picaresque novel was a call to action, brimming with the passion of Seldom Seen Smith, who knelt in the middle of Glen Canyon Dam and prayed: "Dear Old God. You know and I know what it was like here, before them bastards from Washington moved in and ruined it all. You remember the river, how fat and golden it was in June, when the big runoff come down from the Rockies? Remember the crick that come down through Bridge Canyon and Forbidden Canyon, how green and cool and clear it was? Remember the cataracts in Forty-Mile Canyon? Well, they flooded out about half of them. And part of the Escalante's gone now. Are you listening to me? There's something you can do for me, God. How about a little old precision-type earthquake right under this dam?"

Critic Donn Rawlings downplayed "The Monkey Wrench Gang" as a madcap tale of "symbolic aggression," but to many shocked readers it was an irresponsible blueprint for terrorism akin to the white supremacist "The Turner Diaries" that supposedly sparked the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. When asked if he was really advocating blowing up a dam, Abbey said, "No" but added that "if someone else wanted to do it, I'd be there holding a flashlight." Failing to see his humor, Abbey's detractors ignored an important point: Lovable pranksters in his novel kill only machines, not people, unlike the truly violent protagonists in such fictional works as Anthony Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange" and Hubert Selby Jr.'s "Last Exit to Brooklyn."

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