Edward Abbey

If Edward Abbey were living and writing in almost any other country on this beleaguered planet, he would have been honored long ago with the traditional rewards of the dissident author—exile, imprisonment, maybe even execution. After all, Abbey is, as he has exuberantly proclaimed in 11 books in 30 years, an anarchist. His most popular novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, which has sold a half-million copies in paperback, is a boisterous ode to the joys of sabotaging the machinery that is chewing up his beloved American West. Nor is Abbey’s interest in “ecosabotage” purely literary: He gleefully confesses to burning many a billboard and disabling many a bulldozer with a dose of sand in the transmission. Still, when Abbey left his home in the Arizona desert and traveled to San Diego recently, he was not arrested, attacked or ridden out of town on a rail. Instead, he was greeted with a rousing ovation by 500 seemingly respectable adults who had paid $8 apiece for the privilege of hearing him address a Sierra Club fund raiser.

The 6’3″ desert sage lumbered to the platform, stashed his empty beer bottle beneath the podium, slipped on his reading glasses and peered over them at the audience. “It’s always a delight to come to California,” he said, his sly grin almost hidden behind his thick, graying beard. “It’s even more delightful to leave 24 hours later.”

Abbey’s fans didn’t resent the jibe; they relished it, laughing and cheering. After six novels and five books of idiosyncratic environmentalist essays, Abbey has, at 57, attracted the kind of fiercely loyal following that critics call a cult. Abbey’s cult—he despises the term—includes college students, conservationists and some of the bigger names of modern American literature. Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Wallace Stegner calls him “one of our best writers about the wilderness…a gadfly with a sting like a scorpion.” Native Texan Larry McMurtry, whose novels include Terms of Endearment, describes him as “the Thoreau of the American West.” Abbey often complains that he is ignored by the Eastern literary establishment, but the bible of that cult—the New York Times Book Review—has bestowed its seal of approval on Abbey’s latest book, Beyond the Wall (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $14.95). “The author,” wrote novelist Alice Hoffman, “is the voice of all that is ornery and honorable. He’s a prospector for truth, an exile from the city, a desert rat.”

Abbey’s prose not only draws praise, it also attracts scores of devotees to his rare public appearances. When Abbey agreed to autograph his works at a bookshop near San Diego, the place was mobbed with fans.

“I’ve read all your books,” purred a middle-aged woman in purple.

“All of them?” said Abbey, feigning horror. “Even the naughty ones?”

“I bought a copy of Desert Solitaire at the bookstore at Bryce Canyon,” said a clean-cut young man. “It changed my whole view.”

“For the better or for the worse?” asked Abbey.

“I’ve been reading you for so long,” said a gray-haired fellow, “it’s nice to see the man who wrote the words.”

“Just more skin and bone.”

Abbey is not, of course, universally loved. Deliberately provocative, he attracts criticism as barbed—though seldom as artful—as his own polemics. A reviewer in The Nation dismissed him as “puerile, arrogant, xenophobic and dopey.” Another critic suggested that he “be neutered and locked away forever.” Not all such attacks come in print; some are delivered in person. A Utah county commissioner once grabbed Abbey by the lapels and accused him of encouraging millions of dollars in sabotage on local construction projects. “He offered to take me for a ride in his airplane and push me out,” Abbey says, smiling.

Abbey declined the invitation, but he revels in the controversy he inspires. “I write to entertain my friends and exasperate our enemies,” he says. What entertains some and exasperates others is Abbey’s unique prose voice. Alternately misanthropic and sentimental, enraged and hilarious, it is the music of a full-blooded man airing his passions. Sometimes that voice does recall Thoreau: “What a terrible price we pay for our tract homes, our fancy plumbing, our automobiles, our ‘labor-saving’ appliances, the luxuriously processed ersatz food in the supermarkets, that mountain of metal junk and plastic garbage under which our lives are smothered.” But sometimes it sounds more like Mark Twain: “There’s something about winning at poker that restores my faith in the innate goodness of my fellow man.” Or like W.C. Fields: “Of course I litter the public highway. After all, it’s not the beer cans that are ugly. It’s the highway that is ugly.”

Abbey’s charmingly cantankerous prose personality is, he readily admits, merely a literary persona, an “arrogant, blustering, macho fraud.” And the glib, gruff jokester he plays in public is similarly a fiction, the product of his profound shyness about meeting strangers—and of the firewater with which he fortifies himself for such events. Friends describe the private Abbey as gentler and more contemplative than the public one. “He’s much deeper than people realize, much more philosophic,” says Jack Macrae, his editor for the last 15 years. “He cares enormously about philosophy, particularly classical Greek philosophy. He obviously cares mightily about the land. And he’s not truly a misanthrope.”

Back home near Tucson he does seem more at ease, relaxing in the modest home he shares with his wife, Clarke, 31, and his daughters, Susannah, 15, and Rebecca, 9 months. (He also has two sons, Joshua, 27, an actor living in New York, and Aaron, 24, a musician living in Las Vegas.) Like the huge, hulking saguaro cacti that dominate his five-acre desert backyard, he is prickly on the outside, softer on the inside. The quick one-liners he uses to deflect questions (and praise) in public are replaced by long, thoughtful comments, particularly when he discusses his ambivalence about the adoration of fans. “It’s very rewarding to discover that people can be touched by what one writes,” he says. “On the other hand, I’d hate to feel responsible for changing anyone’s life. I don’t feel wise enough to tell anyone how to live. God knows, I’ve made a mess of much of my own life.”

Abbey’s unlikely existence began in 1927 on what he calls a “submarginal farm” near Home, Pa. Son of the village socialist and his conservative wife, Abbey grew up a bookish boy, reading Jack London and Zane Grey and daydreaming of adventures in the Wild West. At 17, he hitchhiked cross-country with $20 in his pocket. “I fell in love with the West,” he says. “I loved everything—the high mountain country in Montana and the desert in the Southwest.” The affair was temporarily broken up by the Army, which dispatched Abbey to war-battered Naples. Back home in 1947, he applied to Western colleges and scurried off to the first one that accepted him, the University of New Mexico. Restless, he dropped out “every other semester” but somehow managed to earn a master’s degree in philosophy, marry, divorce and write his first book, Jonathan Troy, published in 1954. “It’s a very bad novel about the agonies of adolescent lust, acne and father-son conflict,” he says. “I’m amazed it ever got published.”

Still, Abbey kept writing, supporting himself with seasonal jobs as a forest ranger and fire lookout. His second novel, The Brave Cowboy (1956), is a fable about an anachronistic horseman struggling against our overcivilized century. Abbey isn’t very fond of that book either, but it caught Kirk Douglas’ eye and became the 1962 movie Lonely Are the Brave. Abbey was hired as a $100-a-day consultant on the film, a sinecure that lasted only four days but left fond memories. “It was the best job I ever had,” he says.

In the early ’60s, the budding Western novelist reluctantly followed his second wife, an abstract painter, to New York. They set up housekeeping across the Hudson in Hoboken, and Abbey found employment as a welfare caseworker. “It was awful,” he says, “but it was great material for literature. If I had stayed in Hoboken, I would have become the Dostoyevski of Hudson County, N.J. Instead I spent all my time longing for the West—the blue skies, the desert, the mountains, the rivers.”

After two years Abbey fled West (minus his wife) only to discover anew that those skies were being blackened with smog, the desert desecrated with strip mines, the mountains denuded by logging, the rivers crippled by dams. Enraged at the rape of his chosen land, he wrote his first nonfiction book, penning parts of it in a Death Valley whore-house during his off-hours as a school-bus driver. The book, Desert Solitaire (1968), is alternately a lyrical paean to the beauties of Utah’s canyon country, a scathing denunciation of its despoliation and an eloquent defense of the wilderness. “Wilderness complements and completes civilization,” he wrote. “We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it…We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis.”

With Desert Solitaire, Abbey found his theme and his voice. With The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), he found a mass audience. The novel is a comic extravaganza about four environmentalists who destroy billboards and construction equipment and finally blow up the Glen Canyon Dam, a structure that aroused Abbey’s undying enmity when it was built 20 years ago on the Colorado River in northern Arizona, flooding one of the West’s most breathtaking landscapes. “I did quite a bit of field research for that book,” Abbey says with a grin. “I spent whole nights on construction sites in Utah, putting sand in transmissions, shooting holes in truck tires and radiators. I was full of rage and it made me feel good temporarily. I think we have a moral right—even an obligation—to defend places that we love against an attack, an invasion. I’m willing to advocate sabotage as a last resort when political means fail to save the wilderness.”

Abbey hasn’t done any monkey wrenching for several years. Construction sites are better guarded these days, he says, and besides, he’s getting old. Sometimes, in fact, he seems almost mellow. After several marriages destroyed by his womanizing—”I could never get enough sexual variety, or so I thought”—he has settled in with Clarke Cartwright, whom he met four years ago after she wrote him a fan letter. “I’m happily married now,” he says. “I have a very good wife and a nice family.” Bouncing little Rebecca on his lap, he volunteers a confession. “This is the first of my [four] children that I’ve really enjoyed. I loved them all but I didn’t enjoy fatherhood. I was too selfish; I saw them as threats to my personal freedom. At 57, I’ve finally grown up enough to be a parent.”

As Abbey’s life is losing some of its turbulence, his art is changing as well. Convinced that he has said about all he can about the West, he is now writing an “Eastern,” an autobiographical novel he laughingly calls The Fat Masterpiece. “This book is more concerned with love and marriage and family matters,” he says. “Right now it’s just a mass of scribbling. I have to work it into some sort of shape.”

This mellowing Ed Abbey was the one on display at the Sierra Club affair in San Diego. He had originally planned to read a bitter attack on illegal immigration—he thinks the country is too crowded already—but changed his mind at the last minute. “The speech is too provocative,” he said, sipping a beer. “It’ll upset people.” Could this possibly be the same self-proclaimed extremist who once wrote, “I love an argument and wish to provoke?” “Yes,” said Abbey, dismissing the contradiction with a wry smile. “But tonight I just feel like entertaining.”

And he did, reading a hilarious account of a raft trip through the rapids of the Colorado River. The next morning Abbey rose at dawn, as is his custom, and set out to explore the area around the home of his host, Sierra Club organizer Bob Hartman. Suddenly surrounded by a strange sort of wilderness—suburban, not Sonoran—this veteran of 120-mile desert treks found himself hopelessly lost. Finally he had to phone Hartman for directions. “And I was only about a block from his house,” he admits sheepishly.

Abbey fared better a few days later, hiking through the tall cactus country near his home. The desert is Abbey’s element, and he seems to notice everything there. Walking a mountain ridge, he spotted a tiny flash of light hundreds of yards away in the valley below. “That could be a hiker with a broken leg, signaling with a mirror,” he said. He scampered to a higher spot for a better look. “No, it’s just a piece of tinfoil.” Sauntering leisurely along, he paused to point out a tiny poppy. “That’s the first one I’ve seen this year,” he said. “It was a dry winter. If we had had just a bit more rain, there would be a million here.”

Abbey strolled downhill into a forest of huge saguaro cacti, some of them 50 feet tall with arms that appeared almost human. “Did you hear about the saguaro that killed a man?” he asked. “A couple of years ago some drunken sportsmen were out in the desert shooting saguaros with shotguns. One of them got too close when he fired, and the cactus fell over and crushed him.” Abbey grinned mischievously. “So,” he said, “there is some justice in the world.” Moving along, he stopped beside an ancient, weather-battered saguaro that tilted precariously to one side, looking as if it were ready to keel over dead. Abbey gave it a sympathetic pat on the trunk. “Take it easy, old fella,” he whispered. “Don’t lean too far now.” Then he marched on into the desert, deeper into the land he loves.

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