I love Edward Abbey for Desert Solitaire, and for his reputation (compounded of course by my love of Fire Season too). My Pops has gotten into him this year, and has brought me quite a few of his books, and I’ve been excited to pick them up. I confess I chose this one for its setting as I’m now working on completing the Where Are You Reading? Challenge, and it covers Arizona for me. But oh! this book has value all on its own. Those 3-4 other Abbey books that are sitting on my shelf right now just moved up the list a little bit. He wrote more nonfiction than fiction, and his best-known novel is The Monkey Wrench Gang; this lesser-known novel involves a fire lookout, which was my attraction (see again Fire Season).
The story is this. Will Gatlin has abandoned his life as college professor and husband to become a reclusive fire lookout in the Grand Canyon National Park. He is mostly alone up there, but does get a few visits and letters from his friend Art Ballantine, who still teaches college but expends more energy on chasing women. To say he is obsessed with sex, breasts, the female anatomy (he uses the c-word), young girls in every application, would be putting it mildly; his letters are raving and silly and self-deprecatingly intellectual. And very funny. In between Ballantine missives Will does his fire-lookout work, observes nature – these parts are poetic, loving and appreciative – and carries on a love affair with a girl named Sandy. I’m not sure we ever learn Will’s age, but he is probably old enough to be nineteen-year-old Sandy’s father. She is a virgin when they meet, and engaged to another man, but none of this stops them from cavorting the wilds (desert, river, canyon and forest) in the nude, wittily teasing one another and having wonderful sex. Here Abbey falls into that lamentable and oh-so-distinctive habit that older male writers sometimes fall into (Papa included!) of creating nubile young beauties who want nothing more than to have endless sex with old men. It’s unfortunate in that it seems to give away the author’s own dirty-old-man fantasies (I don’t know this about Abbey in particular but it is my reaction to the cliché). But if we can move past this issue, Will and Sandy have a great time running around the wilderness, la dee da. That is, until Sandy disappears and her fiancé shows up to accuse Will of disappearing her and punches him in the face.
Abbey writes beautifully, lyrically about nature and about love or at least attraction. The letters from Ballantine (and others) are amusing. The story is tragic, but it requires a certain overlooking of the older man’s fantasy before we could really sympathize with Will’s sense of loss. If you can move past this, it’s a beautiful little story with flora and fauna of the Grand Canyon painting the background. I was only partly successful in that requisite overlooking, but enjoyed it all the same. I have great hope for the other Abbey books waiting on my shelves.
I thought I could clearly see connections in Abbey’s writing style and subject matter to Keruoac, as well as Philip Connors, who in Fire Season acknowledges the debt. I recommend Black Sun, unless of course you’ve had too much euphoric losing of teenage virginities to much older men, in which case perhaps start with Desert Solitaire and I’ll let you know how the rest of them go, too!