100 Voices from the Little Bighorn Deluxe CD-ROM Bundle Edition by Bruce Brown

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From the Washington Post Book World...
Don't Mess With Ed

THIS ONE got me a hate letter from Edward Abbey, which was a thrill, but like Confederate money, really not that rare.

The famously irascible Abbey was upset that I suggested that this might not be his last desert book, as he and his publicists were then maintaining.

I was happily correct that Beyond the Wall wasn't his last book. He published four more non-fiction books (One Life at a Time, Please, A Voice Crying in the Wilderness, Confessions of a Barbarian), and two more novels, The Fool's Progress, and Hayduke Lives!

But Abbey's health wasn't good and he was in fact near the end of the trail. I realize now that's probably part of what made him so irritable.

To bad Ed Abbey isn't around today to see how American freedoms and the environment have been shredded by the Bush administration.

I can only imagine the head of stream he'd get up over that!

-- B.B.

Petrogyphs in Moonflower Canyon, Utah

Desert Dispatches
Edward Abbey nears the end of the trail

by Bruce Brown

"The heart of Abbey Country is somewhere in a canyon along the Colorado River or a tributary like the Green or Paria rivers, although for literary purposes he lists his address as Oracle, Arizona."

BEYOND THE WALL: Essays From the Outside.
By Edward Abbey
Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 203 pp. $14.95; paperback, $7.95

BEYOND THE WALL may be the last desert book by one of the nation's great writers on the arid wildernesses of the West. In his preface, Edward Abbey states with characteristic bluntness and humor that the work "is my last to be 'writ in sand.' Never again will I vandalize the slipface of a dune with my impertinent signature. I have nothing new to say about vultures, stone, scorpions, kissing bugs, alkali, silence, death or the sphinx-like Medusa rock that waits for the unwary at the head, the dead end, the ultimate cul-de-sac, of Skeleton Gulch. Let other younger more hopeful voices carry on."

Abbey then proceeds to say much that is new and interesting about the deserts of North America. He ranges from the Sea of Cortez to the Arctic Ocean, but as with so many of his books, he concentrates on the desert of the American Southwest, the amazing wilderness of buttes, dunes and canyons that sweeps across part of seven states, and is probably best known for the Grand Canyon. The heart of Abbey country is somewhere in a canyon along the Colorado River or a tributary like the Green or Paria rivers, although for literary purposes he lists his address as Oracle, Arizona.

Aficionados of Desert Solitaire, The Monkey Wrench Gang, Abbey's Road, Fire on the Mountain and Abbey's other popular fiction, nonfiction and TV works will recognize the terrain of Beyond the Wall, as well as many of the moods of light and life. Here is a wonderful trip into the Paria (merely a name on the road sign in The Monkey Wrench Gang), also called "Pyorrhea" and "Pariah," wherein Abbey and friends explore a "Byzantine region of sandstone domes, turrets, pinnacles, minarets, alcoves, grottoes and amphitheaters," inch their way up a narrow canyon, help a heifer out of quicksand, and finally deliver a swift kick to the slats of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management over development schemes.

Beyond the Wall brings together 10 desert pieces written by Abbey as articles, essays and lectures over the last two decades. All are enlivened by bits of vintage Abbey, and some stand whole as first-rate examples of wilderness writing. Describing the subtle but varied beauty of the dunes, Abbey writes of "shades of color that change from hour to hour-bright golden in morning and afternoon, a pallid tan beneath the noon sun, platinum by moonlight, blue-sheened under snow, metallic silver when rimed with hoarfrost, glowing like heated iron at sunrise and sunset, lavender by twilight." He knows the private beauty of the wild desert, and argues its cause vehemently. "If the life of things millions of years old does not seem sacred to us, then what can be sacred? Human vanity alone?".

Along the way, Abbey finds time for some campfire criticism of current writers. Regarding Tom Robbins' Still Life With Woodpecker, Abbey writes, "to read a Tom Robbins book from end to end is like chugalugging a quart of Aunt Jemima's pancake syrup." Abbey considers John McPhee "a first rate reporter, but too mild, too nice, too cautious -- no point of view." I think Abbey is correct in his identification of McPhee's weaknesses, but this says nothing of his ability to overcome them and produce memorable work. As a matter of fact, McPhee's piece on Glen Canyon Dam in Encounters With the Archdruid is superior to anything Abbey himself has produced on the subject, either here or elsewhere.

Abbey has lots of "point of view," but sometimes it just seems to produce a series of quick-venting polemics that leave little mark despite their momentary heat. He rarely takes the time to persuade the reader of anything, preferring to deliver himself of pure opinion. There is also a casual quality to Abbey's writing that shows off his fine iconoclastic wit when he is going good, but at other times reveals a tendency toward hackneyed expressions ("bright eyed and bushy tailed," "a fine kettle of fish," etc.) and contradictions (as when he condemns RVs and other modern mechanized forms of desert travel, while romanticizing his own early mechanized desert exploration via beat-up pickup truck).

The thing about Edward Abbey, though, is that you absolutely can not underestimate him in the pinch. A Luddite Lothario and true lover of the West, he can burn with a pure flame. His understanding of the important forces that are changing the western landscape is a beacon to many (this is of course the other side of the "point of view" coin), and has combined with his passion, humor and shrewdness to produce some writing of real power.

And so is this Abbey's desert adieu? I think there is good literary evidence for hoping this is not the case. Like "Rudolf the Red" (who returned with a new band of "eco-raiders" a couple of years after he was supposedly blown to bits at the climax of The Monkey Wrench Gang, I suspect that Abbey will lead us into the desert again when the time is right.

"Desert Dispatches" originally appeared in the April 1, 1984 issue of the Washington Post Book World.
© Copyright 1984 Bruce Brown

Mysteries of the Little Bighorn by Bruce Brown #3

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