The Monkey Wrench Gang is a classic book by Edward Abbey, his most famous novel, published in 1975. Even though I had heard about the book over the years, I had never read it, never actually seriously considered it. It took Devin, who is doing environmental work in Arizona in the Coconino Rural Environment Corps, recommending Abbey to me, and then a texted reminder a few days ago, to finally get me cranking. Once I started, I could not stop and I read the book within a few days.
The story deals with environmental activism and sabotage to protect the American Southwest from runaway industrialization, particularly in the “four corners” area, the connection of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado.
Through the popularity of this book the term monkey wrench came to mean, besides sabotage to machinery, any sabotage, activism and illegal activity to preserve wilderness, ecosystems and nature in general. If you are interested in the origin of the term monkey wrench, you can check Wikipedia here.
Abbey has a unique writing style, using chopped off sentences, quick exclamations, no unnecessary adjectives, that takes some getting used to.
The book starts:
When a new bridge between two sovereign states of the United States has been completed, it is time for speech. For flags, bands and electronically amplified techno-industrial rhetoric. For the public address.
The people are waiting. The bridge, bedecked with bunting, streamers and Day-Glo banners, is ready. All wait for the official opening, the final oration, the slash of ribbon, the advancing limousines. No matter that in actual fact the bridge has already known heavy commercial use for six months.
Long files of automobiles stand at the approaches, strung out for a mile to the north and south and monitored by state police on motorcycles, sullen, heavy men creaking with leather, stiff in riot helmet, badge, gun, Mace, club, radio. The proud tough sensitive flunkies of the rich and powerful. Armed and dangerous.
Reading the first few pages I almost abandoned the book, until, all of a sudden, the quick style grew on me.
An unlikely quartet forms during a ride down the Colorado river through the Grand Canyon.
- Doc is a general surgeon who works in Albuquerque, approaching fifty, widowed, burned out but with a fire in his belly for activism and the money to fund it.
- Bonnie Abbzug, a 28-year-old sexpot with an attitude who sleeps with Doc but is not quite sure why.
- Seldom Seen Smith is a Utah Mormon. He has three wives, who live apart by a day’s drive each, that he cycles through. They gave him the name Seldom Seen and you can figure out why. He is also an outfitter and wilderness guide.
- George Hayduke is a green beret, a Vietnam combat veteran and prisoner of war, a hard ass and a complete psychopath. An uncontrollable destruction machine.
The four form a bond of friendship based on a mission to “protect” the land. They start out cutting fuel lines in bulldozers and pouring sand in their gas tanks. It does not take long before they figure out that they can wreak more havoc by simply driving the bulldozers off cliffs into canyons. It gets more dangerous with every mission.
It’s also a comedy, and there are plenty of times when I laughed out loud. For example:
Second, for relaxation, Doc performed a hemorrhoidectomy, a simple operation – like coring an apple – that he always enjoyed, especially when his patient was the red-necked white-assed blue-nosed persecutor of topless dancers W. W. Dingledine (not the W. W. Dingledine? aye, the same!), District Attorney of Bernal County, New Mexico. Doc’s fee for the ten-minute rectal reaming would be, in this case, a flat $500. Exorbitant? Of course; of course it was exorbitant; but, well, the D.A. had been warned: Prosecutors will be violated.
Note the 1975 prices for surgery, $500. In another place in the book it lists the price of a gallon of regular gas at 49 cents, which seemed high to them when having to drive the immense distances in the Southwest.
I really enjoyed reading this and now, finally, after forgetting and forgetting and forgetting to sign up, I am making the reservations for Devin and me to hike the Grand Canyon North to South Rim this summer. Motivated!