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The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors

by Laura Miller

The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors
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    Aug 2000, 512 pages

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Celebrated as a brilliant, sardonic environmental polemicist and chronicler of the Southwestern landscape, Abbey thought of himself primarily as a novelist, and during the final decades of his life he nursed grievances against both critics and admirers who had slighted his achievements as a fiction writer. He spent much of the 1950s studying philosophy atthe University of New Mexico, where he wrote a master's thesis on anarchy and violence. Abbey's literary career began with the execrable bildungsroman Jonathan Troy, followed by two intermittently successful modern westerns with an existential bent: The Brave Cowboy (later made into a Kirk Douglas movie titled Lonely Are the Brave), and Fire on the Mountain.

In 1968, after supporting himself for several years by working as a seasonal park ranger in Utah, Abbey published the first of his eleven nonfiction books, the angry, elegiac essay Desert Solitaire; it remains his most popular title and is justly considered a classic of American writing on the meaning and value of wilderness. His fourth novel, Black Sun, tells the story of a man whose lover disappears after they spend an ecstatic period together at a fire-lookout tower in Grand Canyon country; the book includes some of Abbey's finest evocations of the alien beauty of the desert and some of his most bathetic musings on love and solitude. Abbey's best novel by far is The Monkey Wrench Gang, a hugely entertaining comic fantasy about a quartet of eco-saboteurs who roam the Southwest destroying roads, billboards, bridges, and bulldozers, and who dream of demolishing the West's greatest symbol of technocratic hubris, Glen Canyon Dam.

So compelling is Abbey's anarchistic vision that it was instrumental in inspiring the formation of Earth First!—an organization whose more zealous and naive members sometimes attempted to emulate the demolition tactics of the novel's protaganists. The Monkey Wrench Gang draws its satirical force from both a gleeful countercultural violation of middle-class norms (its Vietnam vet George Washington Hayduke, "a saboteur of much wrath but little brain," could have come straight from the pages of the underground comix) and a Twainian, mock-heroic exuberance. Good News, Abbey's next novel, is a scabrous but ultimately slight exposition of a post-apocalyptic Arizona in which Abbey's worst ecological nightmares have come to pass. The author's most ambitious and explicitly autobiographical novel is The Fool's Progress; despite some fine passages of reminiscence about Appalachian boyhood on a Depression-era farm, the book is a showcase of many of Abbey's least attractive qualities (among them his willful cantankerousness, xenophobia, and self-pitying machismo). A posthumous sequel to The Monkey Wrench Gang, Hayduke Lives!, was published in 1990.

See Also: Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy, which includes All the Pretty Horses, portrays a Southwest very different from Edward Abbey's, but it is similarly transcendent and haunted by the loss of its pristine perfection. The novels of Carl Hiassen transplant the theme of violent, comic revenge against rapacious development to the wilds of South Florida. Barbara Kingsolver offers a feminized version of Abbey country in her novel Animal Dreams. —Hal Espen


Achebe, Chinua 1930- b. Albert Chinualumogu Achebe in 0gidi, Nigeria

FICTION: Things Fall Apart (1958), No Longer At Ease (1960), The Sacrificial Egg (stories, 1962), Arrow of God (1964), A Man of the People (1966), Girls At War (stories, 1972), Anthills of the Savannah (1987)

NONFICTION: Morning Yet on Creation Day (essays, 1975), The Trouble With Nigeria (essays, 1983), Hopes and Impediments (essays, 1988), Another Africa (essay and poems with photographs by Robert Lyons, 1998)

Reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Viking Penguin. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher.

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