Book Review: The Monkey Wrench Gang

The Monkey Wrench Gang (Monkey Wrench Gang, #1)The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The book itself is a flop, but I couldn’t rate it too low because I respect Abbey. The Monkey Wrench Gang can be summarized as “a juvenile effort”, both for the moony-eyed adolescent rebellion that drip from the pages, and the lack of established voice.

Still, the main ingredients are there. His hail mary attempt at an antihero protagonist, George Heyduke, is appropriately named in that he’s sort of a wook Duke Nukem. He wanders around the desert drinking fifty beers a day, pissing on everything and trying to fistfight people. This is supposed to cast him in a sympathetic light. It’s sort of the Rick Sanchez effect in reverse; Abbey wanted you to like Heyduke because he represents this absolute ideal of anarchic masculine freedom and self-governance, but the loony ignorant bullshit he does makes it so you can’t relate to him beyond that conceptualization. Abbey tries to railroad the story along after him, beliving the ideal is enough to carry the character and the weight of the plot. It isn’t, for either.

Heyduke joins up with Seldom-Seen Smith, a cunning and likeable polygamist Jack Mormon, as well as an old doctor named “Doc” and his highly sexualized assistant/token female/book smurfette, Bonnie. All are burgeoning eco-terrorists in their own way, most with little acts of casual, almost cute defiance like defacing billboards or pulling up access trail markers. The presence of other like-minded desert anarcho-primitivists causes them to escalate rapidly and they wind up sabotaging bulldozers, lighting things on fire, and attempting to blow up a bridge.

Despite the destructive themes, the Monkey Wrench Gang takes pains to avoid advocating armed insurrection against the park authority. They tapdance around it, and each time they opt out, it’s dissonant enough to break the immersion. Sort of a Batman thing. Heyduke often has actual wilderness cops at actual gunpoint and you get a bit of his internal monologue, trying to talk himself into it, but he never goes through with it.

I think that was more the author trying to cover his own ass than a deliberate characterization choice, especially with the implication of Heyduke’s internment as a POW and his rambling, telegraphed PTSD reaction when asked about “your war”.

So why three stars? Because I get it. The government really is out there fucking with the pristine beauty of the wilderness. The American west is gorgeous country, and one of the peak experiences of my life was hiking up a New Mexican mesa and standing alone on an escarpment in the hundred degree sun, eyes shaded by my doofy $10 mesh cowboy hat, gazing out over the infinite expanse of orange desert. It made me feel alive in a way I never had before, and some people never will, especially as they build more convenience roads and escalators and coke machines and entire McDonald’s on the rim of the Grand Canyon.

I understand the desire to stop the pay-per-view expansion. We spend our lives sealed up tight in our flashing mirrored coffins, pleasantly entertained from cradle to tomb. Our strife is largely pretend, but in the absence of anything real it becomes out obsession, and as a culture, it’s made us insane. The leading causes of death in America are, in order, heart disease, cancer, accidents, respiratory disease, stroke, alzheimer’s, and diabetes. All but accidents fall under the heading of “metabolic syndrome”, which is doctor-talking for getting fat and complacent because not only is there no need to walk the five miles to see something special, three miles of that road has “NO PEDESTRIAN” signs, whereupon violators will absolutely be prosecuted.

I get Abbey’s message. The land belongs to us, and it’s being taken from us, and when we don’t act to stop it, we’re complicit in both the theft and the consequences, which in this case are the loss of our humanity (as applied to the “human animal”) and our own slow, rotting deaths.

I’m on board with the ideology, but the execution in the book was poor. The characters weren’t believable. They were all too old. That was a deliberate stylistic choice; 1975 had just seen out the sixties, and the ones fighting the power were all teens and twentysomethings, so Abbey was trying to demonstrate to the Movement that some of the olds can be trusted, too. They just have to be crazy. I suppose it’s possible, but I couldn’t suspend the disbelief.

It almost redeemed it when Heyduke was killed in the shoot-out with the wilderness pigs. It gave it a sort of 1984 twist, very impactful, that would have been a solid ending. Then it turned out — sike! — it wasn’t Heyduke, the mountainman Mary Sue, who died in that shoot-out, it was “just a fuckin’ scarecrow, Doc, ha haaaaa, gimme a beer.”

Bad, bad call, Abbey. I know you love the character, but straight up, nobody else did. Martyring him would have made him mean something. You took that from him, and now everyone can tell it’s just a weird teenage self-insert.

Interestingly enough, Abbey wrote Desert Solitaire seven years earlier, and that was an infinitely better book. The same grinning, puckish anarcho-cowpoke sensibilities without any of the turgid prose or cartoonish characterization. If any of this “join me in the shrub my brethren” rambling struck a chord, I’d highly recommend you read that one, and try to upcycle any neurons spent on this book.
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