Edward Abbey: on writing books

Ah yes, the head is full of books. The hard part is to force them down through the bloodstream and out through the fingers.

–From a 1976 letter to Frederick W. hills, editor in chief at McGraw-Hill, as quoted in Postcards from Ed: Dispatches and Salvos from an American Iconoclast.

I can just imagine, Ed. Thanks for taking the effort.

movie: Lonely are the Brave

Here’s another movie I made a point to find after reading the book. Very few of Edward Abbey’s books have made it into film. His most famous novel, The Monkey-Wrench Gang, has been optioned repeatedly but appears doomed to never grace the silver screen, owing (I think rather obviously) to its anti-establishment themes: no Hollywood mogul would involve himself in something so sacrilegious. But The Brave Cowboy was made into a movie starring Kirk Douglas in 1962. Here he is fighting a one-armed man with one arm behind his back in a raunchy saloon:

fighting

The movie is faithful to the book’s plot only in its actions, and not in its motives. The cowboy Jack does ride into town on his horse with the intention of busting his old buddy Paul out of jail; he does kiss Paul’s wife in the process; he does end up in the mountains fighting an archetypal battle against the sheriff and his men, complete with military technologies and sweeping vistas.

vista

It is, in short, a fine Western. What the movie version left out, however, is Jack and Paul’s past together as political protesters. There’s no mention of what Paul’s doing in jail in the first place (dodging the draft, and refusing to take conscientious-objector status), let alone their history in anarchist organizations and their shared hatred of The Man. That would be a little too much even for our Western hero, presumably: better that he be nostalgic about the days of horse and rider herding sheep, and not specifically interested in taking down the federal government. Can’t say I’m surprised. My final gripe would be that the sheriff, Morey, was not cast nearly as fat and bumbling as he reads in the book. At least they left in the taking down of the helicopter; that was fun.

This movie is a simplified and sanitized version of the better book upon which it was based; but that’s what I mostly expect from movies made from books. Some of the dialog seems to have materialized out of thin air, most definitely in the case of Jack’s monologue about being a loner – I suspect Abbey could have rendered such a scene much finer (and funnier) if he’d wanted it in his story in the first place. But it was still a fun romp alongside an Abbey-like hero, just dumbed down. I don’t regret my 90 minutes, but it sure is nice to dream about a proper movie made of The Monkey-Wrench Gang or the like. Sigh. Not a bad film, but not too terribly close to its literary origin.


Rating: 5 stoic grins.

Closing credits: thanks to my neighbor Adrian for helping me find this not-easy-to-find movie. You get a 10-star rating, Adrian!

The Brave Cowboy by Edward Abbey

bravecowboyThe Brave Cowboy was Abbey’s second novel, published in 1956. It introduces Jack Burns, the eponymous cowboy, who will reappear in a number of Abbey’s works of fiction hereafter. We meet Jack as he rides into town (somewhere in New Mexico) on his horse, grumbling in typical Abbey fashion about the military-industrial complex creeping across the desert wilderness he loves. He visits a friend, Jerry, and her son Seth, to ask about her husband Paul, imprisoned in city jail awaiting transfer to a federal facility for a two-year term for draft dodging. Paul and Jack, it turns out, share a past as anarchist opposers of the war in Vietnam. Jack hides two files in his boots and proceeds to get drunk and look at people funny at a bar; this leads, predictably, to his joining Paul at the city jail, where his plan can begin to take action.

Obviously, Jack is there to bust his friend out of jail. But Paul wants to take an ideological stand, points out that he turned himself in and debated the question of his “crime” purposefully, and intends to serve out his term, not least because jailbreaking would lead to a life on the run and negatively effect his family. Jack is disgusted, frustrated, and miserable in jail himself (being something of an archetypal wild creature that cannot be caged) and breaks out the first night, alone.

Local law enforcement follow Jack and his horse into the hills, bound for the wilderness where they will be unable to track him, ultimately (Jack hopes) to Mexico, or who knows where. No spoilers here.

Jack is a symbol. He is everything that is wild and untameable, and counter to the “civilization” (I think of Huck Finn’s “sivilization”) of city & town, military test ranges, factories, and regular baths. He’s rough-n-tough and (I imagine) everything Abbey dreamed of being. He and Jerry, Paul’s wife, share a moment of sexual tension that goes unexplained; I wonder if light is ever shed on this subject in other novels, or if it’s just a gratuitous moment of sexuality – otherwise absent in this book, unusually for Abbey. The manhunt scenes in the desert canyons are excellent, and reminiscent of those in The Monkey Wrench Gang (which Abbey wouldn’t write for another nine years). And the opposing symbol to Jack Burns, the sheriff Morlin Johnson, is an exquisite picture of everything wrong: he picks his nose and scratches his armpits, grumbles at his wife on the phone, is incompetent in every way; and yet, to Abbey’s credit, he retains some humanizing characteristics as well. For example, he struggles to control the enthusiastic manhunters, reminding them that their quarry is not a murderer and should not be shot on sight.

Literary critics, I imagine, could find points to contend over. The good and evil may be a little straightforward; Abbey never bothered with subtlety in his values. The plot is simplistic. But I don’t necessarily find these to be weaknesses. Jack Burns is an archetype, yes, but he’s a strong and entertaining one. I found the ending (still no spoilers!) powerful. Abbey’s highly realistic descriptions of natural scenery, man’s crude habits and strengths and weaknesses, campsite routine, and urban decay are among the best I’ve encountered. Jack’s horse, Whisky, and the relationship they share were a charming addition. While not complicated in form or message, I found The Brave Cowboy to be an excellent read, and a fair representation of Abbey’s work.

Connections…

This book was adapted into a movie called Lonely Are the Brave, starring Kirk Douglas, in 1962, and I will now be seeking that out.

Also, a later Abbey novel called Fire on the Mountain (which I reviewed, and enjoyed) shares an ambiguous connection. The little boy in that book is named Billy, and seems to be the wrong age to grow up to be Jack Burns. But they share the same grandfather, whose ranch meets the same fate in each telling. Abbey wrote Fire later, and I have no explanation for the disjointed connection between the two stories. Are Billy & Jack brothers? Cousins? Mismatched versions of the same man, early & later in life? I am intrigued.

Another great Abbey novel. Luckily, like Hemingway, Abbey is on the one hand dead and no longer writing, but on the other hand, was prolific enough in life to keep me stocked for the time being. Keep ‘em coming.


Rating: 7 stoic, unshaven stares into the middle distance.

Hayduke Lives! by Edward Abbey

Hayduke Lives! What fun! I have been looking forward to this one – with some trepidation, yes, since lovers of The Monkey Wrench Gang tend to be disappointed; but also with good cheer, because even if it’s not the bible of eco-warriors that the other is, I have faith in Abbey and his sense of humor. And my instincts were more or less correct.

We follow a few different plots in this installment. One: George Washington Hayduke is, yes, alive and well, and trying to reconnect with his fellow monkey-wrenchers Bonnie, Doc, and Seldom Seen. Bonnie and Doc have married and have a second child on the way, and Seldom Seen is trying to (ha) lay low and play family man to all three of his wives; none wants to be pulled back into criminal activity, but each is eventually sympathetic to the cause (naturally). Two: A new, younger generation of eco-activists, including the nascent Earth First!, is organizing (sort of) to stop the latest earth-terrorizing mega machine, in this case the Arizona GEM (Giant Earth Mover). [And this is getting kind of meta, since EF! in real life came about after publication of The Monkey Wrench Gang, inspired by it. Abbey never refers to the first book or his own role, in this second book.] Three: An unnamed government organization is working with local Utahn Mormon yahoo J. Oral Hatch and (from book 1) Bishop Love to try to infiltrate and undermine EF!. Hatch and Love are both total boobs, in their own ways, and provide much of the comic relief of this book.

As in TMWG, Abbey portrays a bumbling but good-hearted, solid, self-deprecating love of Mother Earth, some action, and some laughs. What doesn’t carry over is plot: I could sort of feel that Abbey was riding the popularity of TMWG, playing around with the well-loved characters and theme, without crafting the same total package. The first was not only a good story, with a little more plot to it, but also a remarkable magic chemical confluence of characters; I think part of what we fell in love with was the odd foursome that made up the Gang, and the way they all clicked. Where the first book was already a little silly, farcical, juvenile, and heavy on the penis jokes (and don’t get me wrong, I loved it), this book is practically only those things. Enjoyable? Yes, absolutely. As important as Monkey Wrench? Not by a long shot. But I have no regrets that I (appropriately) spent part of my camping-out-in-New-Mexico vacation time reading this silly romp; it was worth every minute.

And yes, I have already purchased my bumper sticker.


Rating: 6 raucous whoops.

book beginnings on Friday: Hayduke Lives! by Edward Abbey

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

Hayduke Lives! is more than just a bumper sticker: it’s the sequel to The Monkey Wrench Gang, published at the very end of Abbey’s life. It begins:

Old man turtle ambles along the deerpath, seeking breakfast. A strand of wild ricegrass dangles from his pincer-like beak. His small wise droll redrimmed eyes look from side to side, bright and wary and shrewd. He walks on long leathery legs, fully extended from the walnut-colored hump of shell, the ventral skid-plate clear of the sand. His shell is big as a cowboy’s skillet, a gardener’s spade, a Tommy’s helmet. He is 145 years old – middleaged. He has fathered many children and will beget more. Maybe.

…so we don’t meet Hayduke and the gang immediately. But I love this opening paragraph for its eccentric descriptive style, and clear love of the land, which is what really defines Abbey.

What are you reading this weekend?

Walking It Off by Doug Peacock

My path to this book feels so very obvious: I have become a big fan of Edward Abbey, and of The Monkey Wrench Gang, and it seems a very natural step to pick up Walking It Off. Peacock was one of Abbey’s closest friends, viewed him as a father figure of sorts, and this memoir focuses in part on their relationship, which was made pricklier by publication of The Monkey Wrench Gang: Peacock was the model for the hero-character George Hayduke, making Peacock a cult figure unto himself. Therefore nothing could be more natural, as I read up on Abbey and his ilk, than to read Peacock. I wonder how many people come to Walking It Off on other paths? There are other paths, of course. First of all, I must give Peacock credit for being a gifted writer himself; it’s not just that he has a powerful story to tell. Nor is Abbey the only object of consideration here; another subject is Peacock’s experience as a Green Beret in Vietnam (which he shares with Hayduke, of course) and the PTSD he suffers ever after. And finally, it is a lovely piece of nature writing, and a contemplation of death – not for the first time am I reminded of Hemingway, who like Abbey spent much time and ink meditating on the meaning of death, preparation for a “good” death, and considering suicide.

The subtitle of this book is “A Veteran’s Chronicle of War and Wilderness,” and that it is. Abbey is a thread that Peacock picks up and puts down, but more constantly, we follow him through wilderness walks and his process of trying to live with what he experienced in Vietnam. I would not have thought that there would be such a connection between war and wilderness, but it makes sense now that I’ve read this book.

After my war, home was the Rocky Mountains. I wasn’t looking for grizzlies but found them anyway. What was invaluable was the way the bears dominated the psychic landscape. After Vietnam, nothing less would anchor the attention. The grizzly instilled enforced humility; you were living with a creature of great beauty married to mystery who could chew your ass off anytime it chose.

Over the course of this memoir, Peacock walks and camps in various wild spaces; we jump around in time, revisiting a mountain-climbing trip in Nepal that nearly killed him. We revisit Abbey, too; early on, Peacock describes Abbey’s death in a fair amount of detail, and the burial, and the conflict of not wanting to let go of a dearly beloved friend who was more ready for his own death than Peacock was ready to lose him. Later, he remembers Abbey, reads some of his journal passages for the first time, and finally, many years after its publication, he struggles to read Hayduke Lives!, the sequel to The Monkey Wrench Gang. But it turns out that Abbey plays a smaller role than I had perhaps expected, and that is more than okay, because this book has so much to offer. I’m doing my own considering of wilderness, its value to us urbanized humanfolk, and the appropriate treatment of our natural spaces, and Peacock gave me still more to think about. From Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac:

All conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.

Which is a very fair point about limiting our use. From Peacock:

You don’t visit the Grizzly Hilton for the salve of gentle nature, a relief from your real life at the office. Here, you live within the land with all its creatures; you engage with it. You have no choice in this realm but to enter the ancient flow of life. This is not the sort of place to compose a wilderness journal of self-reflection.

The Grizzly Hilton is Peacock’s name for a tiny haven of perfect grizzly habitat that he likes to visit; his first book was the result of many years studying the bears, called Grizzly Years and recommended by Phil Connors. Virtually all the action in this book takes place in wilderness areas, on wilderness walks, most of them solo; it’s only inside Peacock’s head, in his contemplation, that we see war, Abbey, other options. We see his first marriage end, and we see him struggle to be the best father he can be. Peacock is a difficult character, a difficult man. How much of this we attribute to the PTSD is I suppose a cause for debate; I would imagine a lot, but perhaps it’s a moot point.

The aging warrior was weary of his own predictable behaviors and emotional tightness fueled by senseless rage. I detested this legacy of anger and, aware that its deeper roots lay in war, knew it wouldn’t be easy to shake. I wanted to stalk this elusive center, using my primitive tools of self-examination – walking, solitude, wildness – to reach back in and touch the source of my wound. Of course I was a poor candidate for a meditative life. My life was a catalogue of psychotic twitches and addictions: official government-sanctioned post-traumatic stress disorder, a combat disability, borderline attention deficit disorder, marginal Tourette’s syndrome, occasional depression, a borderline schizoid paranoiac, a history of alcohol abuse. Guys like that don’t become Zen masters.

But it’s funny, because in a way he does offer Zen. Peacock’s musings on wilderness are thoughtful, beautifully composed, and rooted in history, considerate of ancient cultures and of differences. This is an intelligent book, a lovely consideration of war and its ugliness and also nature and its beauty – and, as a necessary corollary, the ugliness again of humans’ and industry’s effects on nature. Walking It Off is Peacock’s continuing quest for redemption and peace. It is much better than I expected, and I recommend it.


Rating: 9 grizzly bears.

Down the River by Edward Abbey

Down the River is a collection of Abbey’s essays, mostly (if not all) previously published in various publications but generally (if not always) reworked for latter publications, as was his habit. The theme here, of course, is rivers; but he uses his theme lightly and spreads it out wide. The collection has four parts. Part I, “Thoreau and Other Friends,” gives us “Down the River with Henry Thoreau,” a lengthy study of that man over the course of Abbey’s ten-day trip down the Green River in Utah with friends. “A crusty character, Thoreau. An unpeeled man. A man with the bark on him.” …about which the same could be said of Abbey himself. Also in this first section appears “Watching the Birds: the Windhover,” about a season spent as a fire lookout, looking out also for birds, in which he gives us this lovely image:

The redtail hawk is a handsome character. I enjoyed watching the local hunter come planing through the pass between our mountaintop and the adjoining peak, there to catch the wind and hover in place for a while, head twitching back and forth as it scans the forest below. When he – or she – spots something live and edible, down she goes at an angle of forty-five degrees, feet first, talons extended, wings uplifted, feathers all aflutter, looking like a Victorian lady in skirts and ruffled pantaloons jumping off a bridge.

Part II is “Politicks and Rivers” and earns its name; here Abbey waxes philosophical and praises nature while criticizing our treatment of her. Part III, “Places and Rivers,” tells more stories of Abbey’s river trips, to which I am especially partial; his descriptions of lost (or soon-to-be-lost) rivers and valleys and canyons are poignant and might in fact make you cry. Finally, Part IV, “People, Books and Rivers” contains “Footrace in the Desert,” detailing possibly Abbey’s first and last running race, and a lovely portrait of John de Puys (“My Friend Debris”), Abbey’s good friend. It finishes with “Floating,” another dirge for lost rivers.

Repeatedly Abbey is funny, even ridiculous, and often lecherous. But this is also a man who has me looking up words like ‘gelid’ (‘very cold, icy, or frosty’), ‘dithyrambic’ (‘wildly enthusiastic; wildly irregular in form’), ‘oleaginous’ (‘rich in, covered with, or producing oil’), and who uses phrases like ‘concupiscent scrivener’ (definition: Edward Abbey). Remember, he had a master’s degree in philosophy. But he also writes, in “Meeting the Bear,”

Though a sucker for philosophy all of my life I am not a thinker but – a toucher. A feeler, groping his way with the white cane of the senses through the hairy jungle of life. I believe in nothing that I cannot touch, kiss, embrace – whether a woman, a child, a rock, a tree, a bear, a shaggy dog. The rest is hearsay. If God is not present in this young prickly pear jabbing its spines into my shin, then God will have to get by without my help. I’m sorry but that’s the way I feel. The message in the bottle is not for me.

This collection, like *almost all the Abbey I’ve read, I highly recommend. It offers a great and varied example of his best nonfiction; it’s poignant, funny, light-hearted and deathly serious, and beautifully, beautifully done. I hope you love it as much as I do.


*Continue to beware of Black Sun for its self-indulgent and unrealistic fantasy of the middle-aged man landing a sex-hungry teenaged virgin for wild romps in a natural paradise.


Rating: 8 raft trips.
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 362 other followers

%d bloggers like this: