|The Monkey Wrench Gang
3.5 / 5
"When a new bridge between two sovereign states of the United States has been completed, it is time for speech."
"This book, although fictional in form, is based strictly on historical fact. Everything in it is real or actually happened. And it all began just one year from today."
--E.A., Wolf Hole, Arizona
Ed Abbey called The Monkey Wrench Gang, his 1975 novel, 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. The story centers on Vietnam veteran George Washington Hayduke III, who returns to the desert to find his beloved canyons and rivers threatened by industrial development. On a rafting trip down the Colorado River, Hayduke joins forces with feminist saboteur Bonnie Abbzug, wilderness guide Seldom Seen Smith, and billboard torcher Doc Sarvis, M.D., and together they wander off to wage war on the big yellow machines, on dam builders and road builders and strip miners. As they do, his characters voice Abbey's concerns about wilderness preservation ("Hell of a place to lose a cow," Smith thinks to himself while roaming through the canyonlands of southern Utah. "Hell of a place to lose your heart. Hell of a place... to lose. Period"). 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.
I started reading this book over a year ago, when I began an interim position I held at the library of a state university. I of course got all ambitious and decided (absurdly) that I wanted to read as many books as possible from their fiction section, and so I started with the first book I wanted to read that was located in the "A" section. Of course, that plan got derailed quickly, being put aside for things like library books and the BEA, but I still wanted to read this book, even while it sat, continually neglected, in my pile of to-reads. Unfortunately, I had to return the library's copy when I left that job, and then had to wait until we moved to another state so I could obtain a new library card and then get my butt over to the main library, which held a copy of this book. Phew. But, after all was said and done, I am glad that I finally got around to finishing this! It's an anarchist and environmentalist classic, so of course I was rooting for the gang as they fought The Man and worked tirelessly to save the then-unsullied American Midwest from the pollution and destruction of highways and oil drilling and coal mining.
The pacing and timbre of the book reminded me in some odd way of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, even though the only things they really had in common was the era and a similar type of humor. I wonder if Abbey and Thompson were friends; they certainly shared a certain familiar quirkiness, I think.
The Monkey Wrench Gang characters are great in that they epitomize hypocrisy even as they fight for what they think is right - Hayduke is a destructive, violent man who litters like there is no tomorrow, and Bonnie can't live without her creature comforts. Doc is a surgeon who often operates drunk, and chain smokes cigars. And Seldom Seen is a polygamist Mormon who can't keep his wives straight, and rarely takes care of his families. These four form a very strange and unexpected collective who decide to band together to protect the land from developers and the government. Their personalities allow Abbey to really create some true comic gold, which explains why this book remains a beloved classic to many. (Many young boys like Brian Hart have wanted to be badass Hayduke!) While most of the humor isn't of the laugh-out-loud variety, it is still a very funny book; Abbey knows how to poke fun at things even while he clearly loves and fears for the American Midwest. His writing spurred many to take a second look at what big industry was doing to our beautiful country. While I don't know how much difference it made in the end, I am glad Abbey was bold enough to stand up and raise awareness of the issue. For that reason (and for everything I learned about mechanics and that part of the United States), I am glad I read this novel.
"You're horny today."
"I am a veritable unicorn of love."
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