GOODREADS is a website devoted to books and reading them. And, apparently, sharing books with other members. I am a member, although a very inactive one. Yesterday I received notice from the site that a person named Jenny—who I don’t know and who does not use her last name (wisely)—had made me a friend and that I should suggest a book to her. I wrote the following:
“Thanks for the friendship here. Haven’t a clue what you might like and rather than lead with a science-fiction title, I am suggesting Edward Abbey’s marvelous The Monkey Wrench Gang, a tale of environmentally conscious saboteurs. Find the 1985 edition with the Robert Crumb artwork, as it includes a previously deleted chapter.”
For those of you unfamiliar with Mr. Abbey’s work, he is better known as an essayist than a novelist. From his work as a park ranger in the ’50s he complied a large collection of notes, observations, and sketches that were eventually published in 1968 as Desert Solitaire – A Season In The Wilderness. It was an important book in the development of eco-awareness, and because of it Abbey is forever associated with the Southwest and environmental concerns.
“Although it initially garnered little attention, [Desert Solitaire] would eventually be recognized as an iconic work of nature writing and a staple of early environmentalist writing, and brought Abbey critical acclaim and popularity as a writer of environmental, political, and philosophical issues.” (Wikipedia)
This is the first US hardcover edition (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 1975). You can find clean copies being offered for sale on the Internet for $100-200.
A call to protect the wilderness
But his most popular work was in fiction: The Monkey Wrench Gang was a best-seller in the ’70s (is still a good selling title in the new and used book markets) and inspired many Americans and like-minded Europeans to take action against the destruction of the environment by Big Business and Big Government alike. The official GoodReads review of the book states:
“Ed Abbey called The Monkey Wrench Gang a comic extravaganza. Some readers have remarked that the book is more a comic book than a real novel, and it’s true that reading this incendiary call to protect the American wilderness requires more than a little of the old willing suspension of disbelief.
Moving from one improbable situation to the next, packing more adventure into the space of a few weeks than most real people do in a lifetime, the motley gang puts fear into the hearts of their enemies, laughing all the while. It’s comic, yes, and required reading for anyone who has come to love the desert.”
The story begins with feminist Bonnie Abbzug and her lover-mentor Doc Sarvis carrying on one of their favorite activities; torching one of the countless ugly billboards that dot the American landscape. Eventually, we meet the seemingly conservative and Christianly religious wilderness guide ‘Seldom Seen’ Smith and our eventual protagonist/hero, George Washington Hayduke III.
A Vietnam vet when few writers were including such men in their stories as heroes, Hayduke comes home to find his beloved desert canyons and rivers being bulldozed and ‘developed’ by industry and government agencies.
The four connect and the book then proceeds into a series of situations where they attempt to “halt progress” by ever more militant measures: from pouring bags of sugar into the fuel tanks of earth-moving machines to eventually taking on (and taking down) a canyon-spanning bridge. The story can be read as black humor mixed with a call-to-arms, inspiring countless readers to act in nature’s defense.
This is the first US paperback edition (Avon Books, 1976). This is the edition that was read by millions of Americans (probably mostly hippies and students) in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It is easily found on the used book market, usually well “used.”
George Hayduke lives on
Filmmaker ML Lincoln’s Wrenched is a documentary based on Abbey’s work and influence; it has been winning awards at film festivals since its release in 2014.
“The film Wrenched captures the passing of the monkey-wrench from the pioneers of eco-activism to the new generation, which will carry Edward Abbey’s legacy into the 21st century. The fight continues to sustain the last bastion of the American wilderness—the spirit of the West.” (wrenched)
“Edward Abbey was a novelist referred to as the Thoreau of the American West. Infamous for his views on the environment and his criticism of public land policies, Abbey emerged from the early sixties conservationist writers with a uniquely sharp wit and sardonic sense of humor. His stories warn about the consequences of over-development, particularly in the Southwest.
His most riotous novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, depicts a small gang of monkey-wrenchers, non-violent (to people) but not so forgiving to earth-destroying bulldozers, maniacal dam builders and to the countless billboards littering the landscape.” (wrenched)
So, Abbey is considered by many to be one of the finest American writers of the post-WWII era, a landmark among the landscapes of the Southwest. TMWG is a classic, taught in literature and writing classes. What’s not to like, right?
This is the US tenth anniversary hardcover edition with cover art and interior illustrations by R. Crumb (Dream Garden Press, 1985). The art that graces the top of this page is also by Crumb and depicts Hayduke sending an earth-defiler to its doom several thousand feet below.
Back to my new friend Jenny
This was Jenny’s response: “REALLY? You have NO idea what I’m about? This is so NOT the book I’d ever read. AWFUL. Kindly never do that again. DO NOT CONTACT ME. DO NOT RECOMMEND BOOKS TO ME. LEAVE ME ALONE, thank you.”
Wowee zowee, baby! Miss Jenny, what hot button of yours did I inadvertently push?
Probably foolishly, I responded to her message with a “Why?” and a mild bit of castigation for her rudeness to a “friend.” I expect to hear nothing more from her, nor will she from me. The Internet is, among other things, a place the thin-of-skin seem to relish their ability to misinterpret the words and/or intentions of others, and neither request nor require explanations or clarification before putting fingers to keyboard.
Basically, all this boils down to my fragile thin-skinned ego got over Miss Jenny’s rudeness and allowed itself to be inspired to do a book review of sorts. (Sort of a turning-lemons-into-lemonade thing.) So, for those of you who read books and are always on the lookout for good reads, give The Monkey Wrench Gang a look-see . . .
FEATURED IMAGE: The image at the top of this page is a sketch by Robert Crumb of Bonnnie Abzug being hunted by the “bad guys” in a helicopter. Bonnie is, of course, a member of the Monkey Wrench Gang. I cropped the original drawing (above) and “brightened” it for use as this article’s featured image.