The Monkey Wrench Gang
© 1975 Edward Abbey
“Three things my daddy tried to learn me. ‘Son’, he always said, ‘remember these three precepts and you can’t go wrong. One, never eat at a place called Mom’s. Two, never play cards with a man named Doc.’
‘That’s only two.’
‘I can never recollect the third, and that’s what worries me.'”
They say you can’t stop progress, but with with plastic explosives, thermite, and a few friends, it’s worth a shot. The Monkey Wrench Gang is the madcap adventure story of four very disgruntled folk — a brain surgeon with a predilection for chainsawing billboards, a wayward Mormon, a Green Beret out to wage a one-man war, and a lady-type — who join together to wage a war of sabotage against the industrialists despoiling the Southwest. New Mexico, Utah, Arizona — wherever there’s an unguarded bulldozer, they’ll gum its workings and set it on fire. Where there’s a bridge built at public expense for private gain, with smoggy air thrown in as a bonus gift, they’ll blow it. And where there’s a dam…they will dream and pray for a way to destroy it. The Monkey Wrench Gang chronicles their private beginnings, their chance meeting at the Grand Canyon, and their joint missions which draw down not only entirely too many helicopters, but the wrath of a bishop of the Mormons, who is working on his gubernatorial prospects and can’t have a bunch of anarchists running around setting fire to his plans. Time and again they narrowly escape, but eventually things go south. This is a novel for those who see in the wilderness relief from lunacy, who have wished for a “pre-cision” earthquake to topple the godawful constructs that often mar it.
The Monkey Wrench Gang is a adventure novel in which explosive sabotage mixes with similarly fiery dialogue and humor. A reader who has already encountered Edward Abbey will see him again in these characters; his ardent love for the southwestern wilderness, the thoughtful yearning that it not be ruined, both for its sake and for humanity’s, the contempt for the outsized. It comes through in his characters’ conversations with one another, in their narrative of their ambitions and plight. Abbey is sometimes serious, sometimes farcical. What he takes seriously is the desert wilderness, a vast landscape of breathtaking beauty: what he does not take seriously is ego of man, who thinks he can tame it. Tame it, never — ruin it for others, maybe. That’s what Abbey and his characters aim against. They are against coal factories puffing vile plumes into the open air of the desert, against power lines and roads that only said factories and mines put to use; against the invasion of the southwest by ‘consumers” who want to check the Grand Canyon off their list, for whom the desert is not a profoundly moving — challenging, even — experience, and merely a section of the photo album. Each of the characters have their separate motives: the Green Beret is furious that his home is being ruined by the same corporate SOBs who sent him to Vietnam, Seldom Seen Smith has lost his living because of the damned dam damming up the damned river, and the brain surgeon attributes growing health problems to the increasing amount of factories and mines. (The lady-type is involved because she majored in Classic French Literature, and what else are you going to do with that degree but blow up billboards?) . Mostly, however, there is the conflict between the grand wilderness and the corporate-government complex that has delusions of grandeur but is only a major pain in the tuchus for the common man. Abbey is, and his characters are shadows, of a kind of anarchism. Not the bomb-throwing type (they carefully set their bombs, no reckless flinging-about), but the kind that rages against the Man, embodied in the corporate-government complexes of power plants, mines, and the like.
I enjoyed The Monkey Wrench Gang, having long found in Abbey a kindred spirit, at least as far as his small-is-beautiful political convictions and love for the wilderness go. (I hasten to add that I do not share Abbey’s habit of billboard-sawing.) Although Abbey’s books were written during the dawn of the environmentalist movement, no one will find in him a stereotype. His characters, for instance, enthusiastically litter the highways they hate with beer cans, because the vista has been so bespoiled that they are really only defacing the defacement. While the Monkey Wrench Gang isn’t exactly a moral mark to aim at, the dialogue makes this a fun novel, especially if you share Abbey’s preference for decentralization. It’s a nice rebels against the Man sort of tale, at any rate. Abbey is a man to spend time with. What a kick he must have been a few sheets to the wind…