Another book which has gained in relevance over the past few years, The Monkey Wrench Gang is the story of four brave souls who set out to stop the ecological destruction of the American West by sabotaging construction machinery, bridges, and power plants. Complete with a happy ending, this story mixes Hunter S. Thompson hi-jinks with a deeper environmental and sociological message.
Part of the reason why I picked this book up was because of the legacy of Edward Abbey himself, a legitimate representative of the great American tradition of independents, libertarians and free thinkers a la Emerson, Thoreau, Twain, and Muir. Abbey clearly drank deeply from the the sacred font of wisdom which is Walden. One of Abbey’s most well known quotes is “growth for growth’s sake is the ideology of the cancer cell” which is directly inspired by Thoreau’s meditation on ant society; where the business of American society is directly compared to an ant hill. “Of course we are busy” asks Thoreau, “but what are we busy about?” Or something to that effect.
Abbey is best thought of as the same generation of Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac. Abbey’s frame of reference and reading of the American political and social landscape is distinctly that of the early Baby Boomer generation; by that I mean that formative group of people who seemed to shepherd in the Hippie movement.
I will admit to being disappointed in this book – especially since several people commented on how much they loved Edward Abbey while I was reading it – therefore a little disillusioned with people in general. I still cannot decide if Abbey consciously modded himself after Hunter S. Thompson or they shared a similar cast of mind and similar audience. Simply put, Abbey is the poor man’s Thompson and the ecologically concerned man’s Kerouac (Kerouac was always about being cool).
Rather than focus on the why – the deep and multifaceted justification for their actions – and evaluating and reflecting on the powerful corporate and social forces which perpetuate ecological destruction, Abbey likes to dwell on the actual details of the sabotage escapades; what stands out in the book is the sensuous landscapes of the south west, lovingly described, followed by desperately mediocre character scenes followed by not-all-that-suspense sabotage scenes which often feel more like a fraternity hazing stunt rather than action that would be instantly labeled “ecoterrorism” by the Media.
The four characters do strike an interesting symbolic balance. There is Dr. Sarvis; a gentleman and scholar, a character who represents classical Enlightenment thought an the academic’s concern for the natural world based on the large, classic sense of Reason. Then there is Seldom Seen Slim, a jack Mormon and river guide who can be understood to represent sincere and open faith, viewing the destruction of the landscape and ecosystem as a crime against God. Third is George Hayduke; probably the most pathos-filled character and could only have been created in the universe of post-Vietnam America. Hayduke is a Vietnam veteran who sees the destruction of the environment as simple a continuation of Vietnam; the war has shifted to his home. He is the only character who consistently advocates violence and a path towards true terrorism; he is by far the most unrealistic character. Last is the lady interest. She’s from New York and Jewish; chic and into Buddhism, she lends glamor to the otherwise sex-appeal-less male characters.
Abbey does a poor job of making a case for environmentalism. He flounders at articulating exactly why we as a society should be motivated to take action. His characters are one-dimensional and forced. Some of his other books might be better – I understand that he has something of a autobiography – but The Monkey Wrench Gang is pretty easy to skip. Read Ecotopia instead.