The Monkey Wrench Gang

monkey wrenchThe Short Version: When George Hayduke, “Seldom Seen” Smith, Doc Sarvis, and Bonnie Abbzug end up on a rafting trip together, a bond is formed – and a quiet revolution begins. The four of them, united by the desire to save our planet’s natural beauty, start a campaign of sabotage with the eventual goal of blowing up Glen Canyon Dam – if they survive that long…

The Review: I’d forgotten just how much I love the western part of this country. I’ve only visited Arizona/Utah/Colorado/New Mexico once, for two weeks – but I can still vividly recall the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, the Painted Desert, and so on. It’s easy to forget, living out here in the wooded/citied East, that there are things of indescribable beauty out there; easy to scoff and say “it’s just a big fucking gash in the Earth, why do we awe at it?”

But that natural beauty, the sort that doesn’t exactly exist anywhere but out there (tied together, as it is, with the mythology of this country), is what makes the place so special. And it is tied, in my mind, to my father in a big way. He is a nature man and he and his friends, when they were younger, were… well, the stories I’ve heard popped into my brain while reading about the exploits of Hayduke and Seldom Seen and Doc and Bonnie.  There are only superficial similarities, of course – they have not, to my knowledge, ever engaged in acts of eco-terrorism or other like-minded vandalism.  But I saw similarities enough to map those figures from my parents’ past onto this story, as though they were the actors playing out the roles.

And the roles are silly. Boy, are they silly. It’s funny, eco-activists have gotten such a rap for being sticks in the mud – but back in the day, I have to imagine they were the fun kind of crazy. At least, that’s what this book would imply. Hayduke is a wacked-out, explosives-loving Vietnam vet straight out of a cartoon while Doc’s cigar-chomping paunch and Bonnie’s hippie-dippie sexiness are the sort of thing that’d get laughed out of a serious book in today’s publishing world.  Not to mention Seldom Seen’s Mormonism.  But in this book, knowing that it was published in ’75 and that the world was a bit different back then… it’s a lark and a laugh, for sure. I was as horrified as these folks were by the rampant disregard for our planet’s natural beauty and natural resources – did you know that Hite, Utah, is a whole town that they basically just flooded in order to create Lake Powell? And that while the dam provides power for people, it also completely shifted the ecological makeup of that area? I’m not saying that blowing up the Glen Canyon Dam is the right choice – but, you know, I’m not necessarily happy that it’s there.

Environmental activism has become a cause célèbre in recent years, probably because the planet has been changed irrevocably by us especially in the last hundred years and anyone who thinks otherwise is a Republican an idiot (same thing, I guess). I was there for the Climate March, I donate to eco-charities… but I felt, after reading this book, not unlike I did after seeing The Civilians’ “The Great Immensity” down at The Public Theater last season.  That show, messy and weird though it was, left a haunting sense of the very real possibility that the only way to affect serious change in climate policy these days is to be a radical about it. Did you know that people have been stopped from getting on planes because they’ve had this book’s sequel (Hayduke Lives!) in their hand? The government fears that sort of violence and, again, I’m not advocating it – nor, do I think, does this book – but it also makes a compelling case that the government and those in power have little interest in diverting from their current ways. It’s hard, as a result, not to cheer for the Monkey Wrench Gang to triumph.

Political stuff aside, it’s often easy to cheer for these characters because they’re so goofy and likeable… but it’s also easy to feel like the book drags a bit. At over 500 pages, much of which is variations on a theme (they sneak onto a dig or a construction site or something and muck about, with some escalation over the course of the story), I definitely found my attention wandering at times and the ultimate resolution felt a little too far into the farce realm.  But I liked Abbey’s choices, in the end: a mysterious Lone Ranger type who wears a mask and rides a horse, doing the same thing as the Monkey Wrenchers; Bonnie living in a geodesic dome; even the epilogue’s resolve.  I just wish there’d been a little less fat between some of those bits.

Rating: 3 out of 5. A fun read, albeit long and uneven at times. Still, the message is clear and the characters silly enough to be just the other side of realistic – so you enjoy yourself as it goes on by. And the descriptions of the wilderness are just wonderful: I haven’t wanted to go back out West so bad in a very long time. And I had a dream of my dad and his friends, knocking back beers around a campfire and thinking “hey, what if we…” and turning to me and saying “well, whaddya think?” and then we went and sabotaged a logging site.  So, yeah, I enjoyed this one.


  1. Pingback: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot | Raging Biblio-holism

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