Home > 1970, 20th Century, Abbey Edward, American Literature, Gallmeister, Highly Recommended, Novel, Road trip, TBR20 > The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey – Eco-terrorist western

The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey – Eco-terrorist western

The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey (1975) French title: Le gang de la clé à molette. Translated by Jacques Mailhos.

This book, though fictional in form, is based strictly on historical fact. Everything in it is real or actually happened. And it all just began just one year from today. Edward Abbey. Wolf Hole, Arizona.

This cryptic quote by Edward Abbey is the first thing you read when you open The Monkey Wrench Gang. Abbey (1927-1989) was an American nature writer and an environmentalist. He related his experience as a seasonal park ranger at Arches National Park in the 1960s in an autobiographical book, Désert solitaire.

The Monkey Wrench Gang is set in the desert regions of the American southwest. Think Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. It was published in 1975 and remember that the city of Page was founded in 1957, the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado river was inaugurated in 1964 and that Lake Powell was a result of this dam. All these constructions are fresh in memories and make the news when Abbey wrote his novel. The area changes rapidly with the development of tourism, the construction of interstates and other huge works of engineering.

The Monkey Wrench Gang relates the fast-paced journey of four ill-assorted environmental activists. Or at least, that’s how we’d call them now. Dr Sarvis, Bonnie Abbzug, George Washington Hayduke and Seldom Seen Smith joined their forces to sabotage machines, bridges and constructions to slow down the roadwork and constructions sites in natural places. They can’t bear the scars that these human works do to the natural landscape.

But who are they and how did they form this revolutionary group?

Dr Sarvis, Doc, is a surgeon from Albuquerque. That’s his day job but at night, with the help of his girlfriend Bonnie Abbzug, he burns billboard along the highway because they spoil the view.

Bonnie is a Jewish young woman from the Bronx. She’s a feminist, exploring her sexuality freely and in rebellion against her upbringing. In other words, Abbzug is at war with society, with herself and with her family. She loves the adrenaline of their mission and she follows Doc around. She’s much younger than him, and their relationship suffers from it because he expects to be dumped at any moment. He introduced her to environmental sabotage and she found a cause to embrace in this fight against the system.

Despite their illegal activities, Doc and Abbzug remain active members of the society. Doc is still a surgeon, and his profession is profitable enough to fund his underground activities. He’s the banker of the operation and a closeted anarchist.

Cover of the original edition

Hayduke is a former Green Beret from the Vietnam war. He suffers from PTSD, his days in Vietnam haunt him. He’s well-trained and able to survive in difficult conditions. He knows how to manipulate explosives, thanks to his time in the army. He knows all the tricks to make secret missions a success. But his temper is volatile, highly inflammable. He guzzles beer as if it were water. He loves firearms and carries an arsenal around. He despises all kind of authority. He’s an outsider, unpredictable and scares the others. He has nothing to lose and that makes him dangerous, even in the eyes of his accomplices. And he’s sexist and behaves like an oaf. He’s a solitary man who enjoys hiking, spending time in the wilderness.

Seldom Seen Smith is a Mormon. He lives in Utah and has three wives in different houses. They seldom see him, hence his nickname. He works as a tourist guide in the area and he knows it extremely well. Smith is grounded by his wives. He has homes he can go back to; his life is there in these mountains, in this desert and he has something to lose if things go wrong.

The three men have complementary skills: one can bring money, one knows the land like the back of his hand and the other has the organizational and technical knowledge to make their missions happen. Abbzug tags along but is still an active participant. She also has the classic role of the femme fatale.

The four of them met when Doc, Abzzug and Hayduke booked a tour with Smith. They share a common hatred for all the destructions of nature in the region; roads, dams and mines are their targets. This group of misfits finds a common ground in their protest against the destruction of nature to build dams, exploit the soil or drive faster on an autobahn instead of using the highway 66. This team who sometimes struggles to work together engages into a dangerous run against the clock to destroy as many machines and roadworks as possible before they get caught. Their only limit is that no worker shall be injured or killed by their sabotage.

Abbey embarks us on a thrilling road trip with this quartet of self-made activists. The Monkey Wrench Gang has something of westerns, of pulp and of cartoons, which means that suspension of belief is needed to enjoy the ride. Hayduke and Charlie Hardie, the character invented by Duane Swierczynski in the Charlie Hardie trilogy seem to have a connection somewhere in their family tree. They have mad survival skills, like in a Road Runner and Wild E. Coyote episode and they are running away from the law. In Abbey’s book, Bishop Love, the local law enforcement is the pursuant. He’s like a villain in a cartoon, a mafia godfather with a court of minions and a lot of means to track down our quartet of nature vigilantes.

Abbey knew the region very well and it shows in its gorgeous descriptions of the landscape. I’ve been in the area and although I remained on the touristy tracks, Abbey’s words brought back memories.

Instead of writing an essay or a pamphlet, he wrote this indescribable novel full of fervent denunciation of the irrevocable damages that mankind does to nature in the name of progress. And forty-four years later, see where it led us.

Abbey managed to write a revolutionary and yet playful book. It’s serious in its fight for the cause of wilderness against mankind’s greed and shameless destructions. It questions unbridled development and points out the damages that western civilization does to natural places. See below a photo of the collection Earth From Above by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, it’s a coal mine in Arizona.

Mine de charbon à ciel ouvert, Arizona, Etats-Unis (32°21’ N – 111°12’ O).

The Monkey Wrench Gang was an influential book. Monkey wrenching became a term to describe that kind of sabotage. The founders of Earth First! Claim that Abbey was their model. It’s a revolutionary book, and typically American in the way that the characters relate to wilderness and are weary of governmental power.

It’s a book that stays with you for a long time after you’ve read it, probably even more these days, with all the state of our planet. Abbey loved this region and wanted to fight for it. He loved it so much that he asked to be buried in the desert and nobody knows where his grave is. He’s back to the wilderness and thirty years after his death, his books are still relevant and fun.

Highly recommended to anyone but especially to people who intend to visit the area. (Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon…)

  1. July 27, 2019 at 9:44 pm

    Sounds most unusual, thought-provoking and entertaining! Thanks for bringing it to my attention – I’d never heard of it!

    Like

  2. July 27, 2019 at 10:52 pm

    I’ve read about this before, but you remind me that it’s something to read, if time permits

    Like

    • July 28, 2019 at 9:39 am

      There’s never enough reading time, right?
      This one is worth the reading time.

      Like

  3. July 28, 2019 at 10:00 am

    I’m afraid I avoid books with Green Berets, even when they’ve converted to eco-terrorism, it’s all just part of the American glorification of violence. It’s a shame we, the left, rested on our laurels after the Vietnam War. I see the new fascist president of Brazil is clear-felling the Amazon. I’m sure we’re heading for all out eco wars, but it will be too little, too late.

    Like

    • July 28, 2019 at 2:45 pm

      Why would you ban books with Green Berets? I can understand why you don’t like what they did in Vietnam but then, following that trail of thoughts, nobody would read books with Nazis anymore.

      I think that Abbey needed a character with that kind of past to have someone on the team who had mad skills about sneaky attacks and a strong knowledge of explosives. A John Smith wouldn’t have known how to blow a bridge.

      Otherwise, Hayduke’s past is not that relevant to the story. What’s most intereresting is the mixed literary genres, Abbey’s fun and humor, his incredible description of nature. He’s angry at all the scars that were done in the landscape, the disturbance of the natural elements for greed and profit but he still created a good quatuor of misfits.

      Like

      • July 28, 2019 at 2:54 pm

        Why? Because they represent a form of US triumphalism, and a glorification of militarism that I don’t like. And if I agree with ‘president’ Trump about one thing it was that you would have had to be stupid to go to the American War in Vietnam.

        Hayduke could have been an Australian iron ore miner (or a Kentucky coal miner). They know plenty about explosives.

        Like

        • July 28, 2019 at 2:59 pm

          I understand your point but not about not reading a book with them in it. As I say, there are plenty of books with characters we disapprove of.

          Yes, Hayduke could have been a coal miner.
          I suppose that the book is also a photo of its time. We’re in the early 1970s, with a Vietnam war veteran and a feminist fighter.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. July 28, 2019 at 2:57 pm

    I think I read this one a long time ago, and barely remember anything about it, but it’s certainly getting topical once more.

    Like

    • July 28, 2019 at 3:02 pm

      Personnally, I don’t agree with the methods they use but I can understand why people get there.
      IMO, violence does only disservice to a cause because the mainstream won’t adhere to it and you need to have the mainstream behind you if you want politicians to change anything. They only respond to the fear of losing elections or the opportunity to win them.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. March 7, 2020 at 7:58 pm
  2. July 14, 2020 at 10:06 am

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