The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey (1975)
It seems there’s a trickle of a theme running through my reading at the moment. Like the last book I read and reviewed here, The Monkey Wrench Gang provides an often comic, wittily crushing discourse on environmental degradation and the lone wolves self-deputizing to protect our planet. Like in Lucky You, this novel narrates the progress of a structured project conceived of by four private citizens aimed at preserving the environment in ways that many will find absurd, obscenely problematic. Abbey’s novel, though, a time-tested classic of American literature in spite of, or perhaps because of, its accidental status as a sometimes-field guide for ecoterrorists, is successful at the trick of executing insightful self-parody in combination with poignant commentary and often striking literary style.
I’ve long been a fan of environmental writing, though I read less of it now than I used to in more disciplined reading days. But a lot of writing in this genre can tend a bit monotonously toward the ekphrastic: so often there are stunning descriptions of natural scenes and processes following stunning descriptions of natural scenes and processes, usually resulting in either a sweetly lulling effect or a fervent desire to get out into the world to see it anew for oneself, and neither state is exactly conducive to sustained reading. So one of the aspects of The Monkey Wrench Gang that excited me was how character-centric it is. The things I love about environmental writing are here, still, and Abbey’s descriptions of the American Southwest are wonderful, but the very nature of the book’s plot precludes dwelling overly much on the beauty of deserts, the sublimity of canyons. One of the recurring symbols is the vulture, and while its presence is acknowledged as being part of the natural order of things, there’s an underlying suggestion that there’s been an uptick in business for the species, and the reason for this is clear.
George Hayduke, Doc Sarvis, Bonnie Abbzug, and Seldom Seen Smith—the novel’s main cast of characters—all come into contact with each other for the first time during a rafting expedition organized through Smith’s small rafting tour company. Each has their own backstory of individualized environmental activism, their own unique history of connecting with the earth and feeling its hurt on a deeply personal level, so their beer and marijuana-fueled decision to join forces and do something Serious about it seems natural. They model themselves after the Luddites, though they ironically are dependent in their lives and for their work on machines and other symbols of technological advancement—cars, highways, dynamite, high caliber rifles. Their plan is to sabotage earth reconstruction projects and no target is considered too big or too small: they seek to destroy billboards, construction equipment, SUVs, train lines, and bridges.
The Monkey Wrench Gang is sprawling—cinematic in its scope and in its delivery. Occasionally throughout the novel, the tense shifts for a sentence or two from past to present, and the reader is swept along in the urgency of the project, the rush to get things done before it’s too late for the characters and for the desert. Zigzagging across the Southwest, we follow Hayduke, Abbzug, and gang through action packed scenes as they blow up United State infrastructure, narrowly come out ahead in high speed car chases, trek through the desert under cover of darkness, and engage each other in volatile debate over the nature of their own actions. As in any good action-driven plot, though, there are also several quieter moments as the characters introspect, pause to take in the grandeur of it all, and come a somewhat uneasy truce with themselves and the world.
I’ll admit I had some trouble getting started with this book. Part of that trouble I think sprung from the fact that my reading of the first 100 pages or so was unusually fragments—I kept trying to read ten pages here, five pages there, and that didn’t work. Just as it’s best practice to set aside hours, not minutes, for movie viewing, it’s best to take in this novel in sustained sessions of engagement. I wasn’t surprised to read in Douglas Brinkley’s introduction to my copy that Thomas Pynchon has been a big fan of Abbey’s; The Monkey Wrench Gang struck me early and hard as being Pynchonesque in its encyclopedic knowledge of its subject matter delivered in unceasingly energetic bursts. As when reading Pynchon, one loses the trains of thought, the momentum build up by the unrelenting unwinding and recoiling of plots, character development, magical sentences that throw you off kilter again and again and again.
I also struggled a little bit with the novel’s dismissive and occasionally hostile portrayal of American Indians in the Southwest. Much of Abbey’s direct references to Indians seems as though it is meant to be ironic, tongue-in-cheek satire, but the lack of positive, redeeming images associated with Indians within the novel makes pinning down Abbey’s subliminal message here a bit confusing. (By way of contrast, The Monkey Wrench Gang also pokes a lot of fun at the Women’s Lib movement while simultaneously portraying a remarkably intelligent and resourceful woman in an often empowering and ultimately human way.)
I’m not sure this book is for everyone, and it’s definitely something one needs to be in the right sort of mood for, but I’m incredibly glad that I finally got around to this classic. In addition to just being a solid piece of entertaining writing, it’s given me a great to think about vis-à-vis environmental activism, when and how to stand up and act on one’s beliefs, and different ways of conceiving of civil disobedience. 4.5/5.
[I’ve read a few books since finishing this one, so I’ll do another mini-book round-up later and then a January wrap-up round-up tomorrow. I sat on this review too long, hoping to make something better of it, and now I’m just behind. Oops!]