guest review: The Brave Cowboy by Edward Abbey, from Pops

Pops is catching up with another book I read several years ago (more than five, in fact, which explains why I was so rusty in reconsidering this story). Please note that my review was spoiler-free, where this one does contain spoilers, after a break – I’ll make that clear in the body of the text, though. Here’s Pops on The Brave Cowboy.

Your review covered the high points well. So what did I especially like?

I too was teased by the suggested connection between Burns’ childhood and Fire on the Mountain; I really wanted to see them link up. But I read it now simply as one of those early good ideas an author grabs later and develops into a full story.

I didn’t remember from Abbey such wonderful phrasing as I found here. As you note, the manhunt scenes in the mountains stand out; one cannot miss Abbey’s love of the place, reflected in his care with words.

It was refreshing to hear Burns’ “grumbling in typical Abbey fashion” as you mention, just the general tone of alienation that Abbey does so well. And I appreciated Paul Bondi’s extended monologue in jail, essentially reminding Burns of the passion & integrity behind their earlier anarchist bond:

Jack, old friend, let’s not go on kidding each other all afternoon. We have too many important things to talk about… I don’t see the world getting any better; like you, I see it getting worse… I see my own country overwhelmed by ugliness and mediocrity and overcrowding…

When Burns first reaches the mountains after his escape:

For the first time in nearly two days and nights he felt himself to be a whole and living creature, a man again and not a derelict stumbling through a mechanical world he could not understand.

I was both admiring of and frustrated with Jerry; she is a character with more potential than Abbey allowed (or was capable of providing a woman character?). She was too ‘good’ for Burns (in several senses?) and with fuller explication it likely would have gone the way of Abbey’s usual dalliances. Perhaps it was best left to our imaginations.

I thought Sheriff Johnson was a particularly rich character, not stereotyped as much as realistic and conflicted. He earned my sympathy as a proxy for the tragically independent but tradition-bound westerner from a romantic past, almost Stegner-like, now confused victim of the world Burns sees more clearly. He in fact has more in common with Burns than other characters. In all of his scenes, Johnson is prone to lapse into reverie, wrestling with his thoughts as others bustle about.

In a favorite passage, he takes a moment away from manhunt-madness, as he drinks from the same modest spring where Burns had recently stopped:

Johnson remained for several minutes on his knees before the spring… listening, scarcely thinking, surrendering himself to strange and archaic sensations; he remembered his childhood, forty years gone, and a dim sweet exquisite sorrow passed like a cloud over his mind.

After hearing from a bellowing and overbearing General by radio, “Johnson felt a peculiar shame, not for himself but for his kind.”

In a wonderful segment, Johnson reflects on the imposing terrain. The extended passage is framed at start and finish by a tumbleweed, “the dry almost weightless hulk… bounced over sand and rocks, coming towards them.” This triggers reflection; Johnson knows Burns is in his element in these hills, while Johnson and increasing numbers of searchers are

waiting in the dust or blundering heavily around in the absurd labyrinth of boulders and canyons and thorny chaparral… [Johnson is] conscious of a vague annoyance… general undifferentiated social resentment of this mountain, an impatience with its irrational bulk and complexity, its absurd exasperating lack of purpose or utility… a piece of sheer insolence.

Thinking about it, Johnson began to smile; he scratched his neck and chuckled aloud.

He hears his thoughts mocking himself, amused at his frailty, envying Burns’ comfort in such a place. The passage ends with an entire paragraph describing the nimble tumbleweed’s path, bouncing over and around him in the wind, heading off up the canyon into the hills – like Burns.

Now, for the often interesting story of the edition I read. Mine is published in 1989, the year Abbey died. (Amazon lists my ISBN [0-8263- 0448-6] but it is not the same imprint; they have no version with the Lambert essay I describe below – how is that?! The image (above) matches my cover.)

In following that trail, I did find other interesting tidbits. The original full title is The Brave Cowboy: An Old Tale in a New Time. Three different chapters were published as essays in periodicals:

  • 1980: Ch. 4, the initial jail scene with lots of repartee interaction between various eccentric jail-mates.
  • 1984: Ch. 11, where Burns returns to the Bondi ranch after escaping from jail, his rushed final interlude with Jerry.
  • 1995: Ch. 14, a longish one, the first scene where Burns has reached the mountains, rich with description and his stalking the deer; it ends with the sheriff’s initial foray into the hills before the day-long manhunt; the two men are close and sensing each other, both knowing there is more to come.

Further, from the Google Books version of Ann Ronald’s The New West of Edward Abbey (2000) I learn she has done some research for us on that connection with Fire on the Mountain.

  • Brave Cowboy mentions the name of Burns’ grandfather in the FBI investigation: Henry Vogelin, the grandfather in Fire on the Mountain (I missed this!). The sheriff sends a deputy to interview Vogelin, but we hear no more about him. Given the gap in time between the books, I still think Abbey is just playing with us: two stories, with fun, tantalizing links.
  • Quoting Ronald: “the pompous colonel in Fire bears the same surname as the arrogant general in Cowboy… although spelling differs surely the selection of Desalius/DeSalius for two supercilious military men was no accident.”
  • The owner of the general store near Vogelin’s ranch in Fire is Hayduke!!

The Afterword: my copy also carries a 1977 copyright for the ‘Introduction’ by Neal Lambert, a Brigham Young U. professor of English & American Studies. Interestingly, in my edition his essay appears as the Afterword. (There is no Introduction; I actually agree strongly with this change, given the content of his contribution.)

Lambert covers a few interesting topics in his 7-page comments:

He describes the book’s “narrative pattern that has become a cliché of western writing through years of long use in pulp fiction and Saturday matinees.” He makes a case for that, and I had thought of it with the extended manhunt, a simple showdown formula, the cowboy symbolizing a creature in his native habitat, being hunted by the bumbling but overwhelming forces of modern technology and amorality who see only “This godawful stinkin’ place.” (Too bad the Indian tracker was not more developed, with contradiction and nuance; but again, likely too much for Abbey and/or his chosen form here.)

He spends too much time ‘suggesting’ and describing what we now consider typical Abbey’s themes of nature and alienation, etc, etc; quite a jarring flag of 1977 perspective. That said, he also quotes extensively from the text, including some I have already highlighted.

He comments, as neither you nor I did, about the “interpolated chapters, those brief irregular flashes revealing the movements of the semitrailer load” and interprets its sense of “the inexorable force of destiny… inevitable destruction of the freedom and simple goodness of the natural life.”

He also reminds us of the important balance Abbey provides the story with many examples of good people with good relationships, with the effect of this sense: “There is much of human sympathy, generosity, and goodness in the world.” We see this with all the central characters, and others including Paul’s judge, truck driver Hinton and of course Sheriff Johnson.

And yes, Lambert agrees with me about Johnson, with interesting additions. He playfully (and somewhat ineffectively) tempers his academic analysis by observing this is not “another Moby Dick. Jack Burns is no Ishmael [not Quinn’s, Melville’s!] and to load that poor vernacular cowboy with such a heavy philosophical burden would make it impossible for him to even mount his horse, let alone ride off across the country.”

The ending: spoilers follow.


Here’s the really intriguing revelation in Lambert’s essay, raising a question for every edition after 1977. He has just addressed the question of whether Burns’ efforts (and thus his life) were in vain after failing to rescue Paul or safely escape himself, and concludes, “His effort was neither ineffectual or in vain. This particular meaning is suggested in the first and last pages of the book. For this new edition, Abbey requested that the lines announcing Burns’ death be dropped. Broken though he is, the cowboy must be allowed to continue.”

This of course begs the question of how the endings are different! From everything I can find, all copies after 1977 have the same ending as mine. So, I submitted an inter-library loan request for an earlier edition. Thanks again to the library network: from little Jamestown College in North Dakota, I just received a beat-up first edition Brave Cowboy (1956) – with a handwritten notation from a librarian: “please handle with care” (I did.) Remarkably, it turns out, Abbey’s ‘revised ending’ in 1977 consisted of the removal of only one sentence, the second-last of the book, and the one that declares Burns dead.

So, what of it? I found Burns’ death unsurprising; one always knows Abbey’s characters (fiction and non-fiction) face an uphill battle. Even the directness of having a modern mechanical force as the fatal weapon was to be expected.

What struck me particularly was how Abbey returns us directly to Burns’ close relationship with Paul, as Burns repeatedly speaks to him in his dying stupor. It must be with purpose that Abbey balances the story of a socially-alienated cowboy-outlaw with a traditional, humanizing buddy story. Perhaps the original ending detracted from this?

Or maybe he just wanted the opening for a future book (a sequel)? Or maybe he just couldn’t bear to lose his hero… Abbey strikes me as susceptible to emotional decision-making. (Recall the indulgence of Black Sun.)

I appreciate your reminders. Much of what you refer to here, Pops, felt dimly familiar but no more. So many books between now and then… I have more Abbey waiting on my shelf for when I find the free time (ha). Indulgences and susceptibility to emotions aside–hey, we’re all human–this is a writer I want to return to. Thanks for this studied response.

Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave by Sean Prentiss

A journey to find a famous grave and an exploration of the meanings of environment and home.

finding abbey

After the death of environmental writer Edward Abbey (The Monkey Wrench Gang; Desert Solitaire), four of his friends took his body to the desert near Albuquerque, N.Mex., and illegally buried him in a hidden location. For decades since, the mystery of his final resting place has tantalized Abbey’s fans and followers. Writer Sean Prentiss set out to track down his hero, as related in the thoughtful Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave.

Prentiss calls on Abbey’s close friends Jack Loeffler, Ken Sleight, David Peterson and Doug Peacock, several of whom inspired characters in Abbey’s fiction. He visits locations that Abbey called home over decades of peripatetic soul-searching. Prentiss does his own exploring, too. Though newly settled in the Midwest for a university job, Prentiss feels enticed by Abbey’s desert Southwest, a region he has also lived and traveled in. As much as he seeks a literal gravesite, or communion with a complicated man, Prentiss equally seeks a home for himself.

Prentiss questions whether he really wants to find the object of his search. “Answers don’t solve questions. Only searching does.” His tone is wondering, and his quest is both personal (where will Prentiss call home?) and universal (what does a sense of place mean to anyone?). His goal might be disrespectful, considering the continued efforts of the Abbey camp to keep the grave’s location a secret, but Prentiss navigates this potential difficulty with sensitivity. While it offers no revelations, Finding Abbey is philosophical, poetic, a creative biography and a loving, evocative celebration of a controversial life.


This review originally ran in the May 15, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 cans of beer.

Edward Abbey: on activism

One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am — a reluctant enthusiast… a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.

From a speech to environmentalists in Missoula, Montana, and in Colorado, which was published in High Country News, (September 24, 1976), under the title “Joy, Shipmates, Joy!”, as quoted in Saving Nature’s Legacy: Protecting and Restoring Biodiversity (1994) by Reed F. Noss, Allen Y. Cooperrider, and Rodger Schlickeisen. (see also similar lines quoted here.)

I am heading north to mountain bike, hike, kayak, snowshoe, and otherwise wander and enjoy in this spirit. Thanks, Ed.

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 (1962)

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.
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