The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey
England is a tamed place. Tidied, neatened, fenced and edged. Not a bit of it that doesn’t seem to belong to someone, laid claim to, made use of or about to be exploited. You’ll only find the “wild” those rare times you get up high enough or ride a bicycle far enough that the fences disappear, roads becomes dirt and you are beyond sight of houses, cars and even electricity pylons. For Edward Abbey in The Monkey Wrench Gang, the wild land of America is a constant presence.
300,000 souls lay about them below, the kingdom of neon, electric gardens of babylonic splendour surrounded by the bleak, black, slovenly wilderness that would never shape up. Where the lean and hungry coyote skulked, unwilling to extinct. Edward Abbey
The book was published nearly four decades ago and was a best seller at the time. The environmental movement was recognised, influential but had the intellectual and middle class reputation it still retains today. This book is none of those things. It is raw, masculine, funny and sometimes offensive to a modern pc reader. Abbey’s characters understand
“We’re up against a mad machine.”
where we are locked into destructive, endless growth that no-one for all their good intentions can opt out of. Their response is to fight back as Ned Ludd did, with what one character calls,
“The rebellion of the meek.”
Although in this case the meek kit themselves out with bolt cutters, monkey wrenches and boxes of dynamite.
The book focuses on the exploits of four characters: Doc, a physician with a sideline in burning down billboards and his young partner Bonnie Abbzug, Hayduke a 25 year old Vietnam veteran and Seldom Seen Smith a lapsed Mormon who takes groups on trips down the Colorado River rapids. They meet on one of these trips. They three men talk together till late into the night and each recognises in the others the same desire to destroy the dams, bridges, roads, pylons and mines that are tearing apart the Arizona desert for the benefit of the power hungry towns. Since the first chapter is entitled “Aftermath”, you know from the outset of the book that it will end in a breathtaking, pyrotechnic and comic display of destruction. The interest is in how and why the four gang members to that point and just how much they are willing to risk and to endure to achieve their ends.
Basically it’s an adventure story with plenty of tension, baddies, chases, near escapes and a little tragedy. You watch the group take on planning assaults on road building vehicles and an unmanned train as they work up to the final tour de force. Abbey conveys the daring and excitement of the action the gang take. After the first successful attack, wrecking the huge earth moving vehicles with sand and sugar syrup, I was egging them on to do more. Somehow Abbey got me involved in the adrenaline rush and satisfaction of being hugely destructive. Maybe he is playing out something deep inside us, that we would like to take vast and powerful actions in,
“Trying to get back to something we all lost a long time ago.”
There is more detail than you might expect - the writer’s love of weapons and survival equipment comes over. It is not something I would normally enjoy but in Abbey’s style and his passion makes it not just easy to read but necessary to the story. Of course, there is a love story but the greatest expression of love in the book is for the desert itself.
And the wind blows, the dust clouds darken the desert blue, pale sand and red dust drift across the asphalt trails and tumbleweeds fill the arroyos. Edward Abbey
There is a great deal of humour in the book, not least in the portrait of the gang constantly driving from place to place in the Colorado area, eating large steaks, tossing their beer cans out of the window and complaining that gasoline costs 55 cents a gallon. If you don’t like highways, says Haydrake,
“litter the shit out of them.”
Much of the humour centres on Bonnie Abbzug who is a woman who doesn’t take kindly to being left on the sidelines, or more usually, as lookout. She is sharp and decisive, the one who keeps Doc “together” – he admits to being prone to “unravel” and takes on the dangerously inquisitive Park Ranger. Unlike the men she is the one who owns and uses a bike, lives in a geodesic dome and grows her own tomatoes. She has kind “hippy” friends and has been known to meditate. In a way she is a symbol of another approach to the environment – one more congruent with Transition! However late in the progress of the action she goes home and after a few days has to admit to herself,
“I want some action!”
And she returns to the desert.
Abbey once said, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”
Reading The Monkey Wrench Gang won’t give you any practical ideas for your Transition journey (I hope!) but it will do two things: entertain you with a strong story written in witty, pared down prose and inspire you with the sense of how heroic it is to protect the wild from the endless encroachments of those who consider the natural world to be simply a commodity.
Pictures: Bookjacket, Edward Abbey