I fear this review won’t do this book justice. Maybe I’m just intimidated. But I read it on vacation and sadly took NO notes – nor do I usually, but it took me a little longer after reading to write the review, and those were hectic days. And it’s a significant book: one of Abbey’s two most famous books, that alongside the nonfiction Desert Solitaire really made his career and solidified his celebrity, as well as birthing the Earth First! organization and movement. If ever a book had a cult following, this is it.
The story follows four individuals. Seldom Seen Smith is a Jack Mormon with three wives in three small towns in Utah; they gave him his nickname for being rarely around any of their three households; he guides river raft trips down the Grand Canyon and generally camps out and around in the natural world more than he stays home. Bonnie Abbzug is a Bronx Jewish girl working out in Albuquerque for Dr. A.K. Sarvis, who when he is widowed takes refuge in Bonnie’s desirable arms. She is much younger and beautiful and very capable; she manages his medical practice as well as satiates his considerable sexual urges. As the book opens, Bonnie and Doc amuse themselves by cutting down billboards with a chainsaw. George Hayduke is a young, muscular, angry Green Beret Vietnam veteran who returned from war with nothing on his mind but the beautiful desert country he loved; upon finding it defiled by industry and roads, he wanders around in a murderous mood until happening upon the other three.
The four form a conflict-ridden union of semi-organized, anarchic environmental activists – stress on the “action” part. They destroy heavy machinery and blow up bridges and the like. The group’s greatest ambition is to take out Glen Canyon Dam and free the mighty Colorado River (and liberate Seldom Seen’s hometown, now underwater, of Hite, Utah). They have adventures and do battle with a small-town Search and Rescue team lead by the Church of Latter Day Saints’ Bishop Love, which is really just a posse of renegades angry at Seldom Seen and whose profits are tied up in the industry that the Monkey Wrench Gang is bent on destroying. There is gunplay; there is infighting; there is sex and camping and nature-praise. It’s rather glorious; The Monkey Wrench Gang is funny and doesn’t take itself too seriously, although its values (pro-nature, anti-development) are definitely heartfelt and poignantly expressed. It’s easy to see how this novel, published in 1975, led like-minded young people to try to live it out.
Common critiques are easily spotted. Most glaringly for me, Bonnie is a sex symbol. Doc is her lover despite being “old and bald and fat and impotent” (the first three are true, the forth patently not; there is reference to his “grand erection,” on which more in a minute) but Seldom Seen openly worships her (which is accepted by all) while Hayduke tries to resist his equally obvious desire. This dynamic is not PC, although I fear it is entirely realistic even today. Knowing just a little about Abbey (one biography, check), it is painfully obvious that Doc (and Hayduke, and Seldom Seen) live out various forms of Abbey’s own lust for vastly younger women (their thighs, their buttocks…) – see again Doc’s “grand erection” even when threatening impotence. This is clearly indulgent of the author’s lechery. But somehow I note that and carry on unoffended. To be fair, Doc is rather laughable. Further, the group is not PC in its attitudes towards American Indians (somewhere in here is the often quoted line “drunk as a Navajo”) or Mormons, continue the list from here. And these are not your average environmentalists; they eat a lot of meat and drive big cars and throw beer cans out the windows along the highway (another famous Abbeyism).
But it’s a hell of a story; I was totally involved, and what can I say, I buy into Abbey’s greatness and went right along with his self-indulgent fantasy. I wanted to see the Glen Canyon Dam come down, too. I wish there was more. Oh wait! Hayduke Lives! That’s gotta be next on the list.