The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey

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.

Rating: 8 sticks of dynamite.

8 Responses

  1. […] Abbey’s, and was the inspiration for the Hayduke character in Abbey’s highly regarded The Monkey Wrench Gang – thus, obviously, my interest in this memoir. It begins: High in the shadow of Dhaulagiri […]

  2. This book really is classic Abbey, including the aspect you noted – there was NOTHING “PC” about Abbey; he was not mainstream even then, but he did evolve in and write of an era that was irreverent enough to eventually lead to the creation of the term. Another hint to the context of his writing is the fact that such a frivolous and rollicking book could help inspire very serious and extreme environmental actions – which it truly did, in spades. That was a time when young people took many things VERY seriously compared to today – and grasped at the slightest cultural connections in the process. As with other period icons, appreciating a work like this now is as much a study of it’s cultural context as it is the artist. See Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, Earnest Hemingway, etc, etc.

    • That’s a great lens on it all, Pops… I did know about the different standards for political correctness (and I’m pretty forgiving, really, but wanted to warn my audience) but I guess I hadn’t thought about the idea that “young people took many things VERY seriously compared to today – and grasped at the slightest cultural connections.” Everyone you name does line up next to Abbey in terms of cult followings, though; that makes plenty good sense. Thanks for visiting. 🙂

  3. […] The Monkey Wrench Gang is EA’s best-known novel, about a gang of social misfits practicing sabotage against industry & government when they threaten nature. Wild and wacky. […]

  4. […] 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 […]

  5. […] 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 […]

  6. […] 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 […]

  7. I’m not that much of a internet reader to be honest but your blogs really nice, keep it up!

    I’ll go ahead and bookmark your website to come back in the future. Cheers

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: