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Tom Chaney No. 258: Custer Wore an Arrow Shirt

Of Writers and Their Books, No. 258: 13 June 2010, a review of Edward Abby's Monkey Wrench Gang
The next earlier Tom Chaney column, a book review The Battered Innocence a review of James Lee Burke's American Lightning

By Tom Chaney
Email: Tom Chaney

Custer Wore an Arrow Shirt

When I have enough of oil company executives who spew crude oil from deep beneath the Gulf and wish they could get their lives back instead of having to explain why their action is destroying life with the largest man-made environmental disaster in the history of the known world; then I retreat to the work of Edward Abbey, and long for a latter-day Monkey Wrench Gang.

Abbey's 1975 novel, Monkey Wrench Gangis a "comic extravaganza" of eco terrorism. Four environmental warriors take aim at the worst invaders of the pristine desert of Utah and Arizona.

We have Seldom Seen Smith -- so called because his three wives each seldom see him as he makes his way between their farms and conducts a rafting/outfitting business on the Colorado River. He is a rather casual Mormon.

George Washington Hayduke III, ex-Viet Cong Medic, ex-Green Beret is appalled at the changes development has brought to his native land.

Doc Sarvis, M.D., graduates from billboard destruction to bridge and railway demolition and brings along his assistant, driver, and lover Bonnie Abbzug.

The four meet on one of Seldom Seen's rafting expeditions and are united by dismay at the destruction of the west.

Anything is a target: strip mines and their automated railroads; unnecessary new roads with their accompanying new bridges; any bulldozer parked any where. They eschew sugar in diesel fuel in favor of corn syrup, for it dissolves better with diesel and makes a finer carbon layer in the engine - leaving a trail of seized engines as they go.

The novel sold hundreds of thousands of copies upon its publication and has been touted as a major influence in the environmental movement over the past 35 years.

It is outrageously funny, I think, because of the care for life that the quartet observe in their vandalism.

As an automated train trundles to its destruction, the gang is appalled to see an observer on the engine. But the timing of the explosion is off. The bridge was to collapse plunging the engine into the canyon, but the engine crosses the bridge before the explosion. The whole train goes in the canyon - from the back - and the loaded cars pull the engine backwards into the abyss giving the lone passenger time to step off and watch the destruction.

Ultimately the gang is chased by just about every imaginable law enforcement and industry agent from the FBI to the park service and forestry police to the county and state and industry cops.The most relentless pursuer, however, is the good Bishop Love. That stalwart Mormon has it in for Seldom Seen not just because of his destruction of the agents of capitalism, but, one feels, for his flaunting of the tenets of Mormonism.

All ends well. The good doctor and his Bonnie befriend the Bishop at the point of a gun. Three of the four are brought to trial and given light punishment. Hayduke is seen plunging off a cliff into a swollen river.

But the bulldozers run again; the bridges do not fall; Glen Canyon dam has no fatal crack.

We want to say with Richard Shelton,
". . .but oh my desert
Yours is the only death I cannot bear"
Or Walt Whitman,
"Resist much. Obey little."
Abbey died in 1989 leaving a posthumous novel with the hopeful title, Hayduke Lives!
Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2010-06-13 05:04:31
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