Tribute to a prickly icon
by Michael Engelhard
Matter Journal 13: Edward Abbey
432 pages, softcover: $17.
Wolverine Farm Publishing, 2010.
The problem with dead authors is that no more work will be forthcoming from them. Without new material to sink their teeth into, both fans and critics of Edward Abbey have long resorted to “secondary sources” -- interviews with the curmudgeon’s friends, vintage photos, artwork, poems and prose inspired by him.
Fortunately, for those who cannot let go, a Fort Collins, Colo., nonprofit-cum-bookstore has dedicated an entire issue of its semi-annual literary and art journal Matter to Cactus Ed. Abbey stalwarts Doug Peacock, Katie Lee, Jim Stiles, Charles Bowden and Jack Loeffler join three dozen less well-known aficionados in this anthology of previously unpublished work. At their best, the interviews assembled here expose the humanity underneath Abbey’s bluster. Through the chinks in his armor, we glimpse a driven and conflicted figure, a trickster entangled in the web of his own words. Dylan Quint’s novella “The Last Four Boats on Lake Foul” stands out among the fiction pieces. With its quartet of misfits and a storyline that culminates in a certain “river restoration project,” it reads like a third, feminist installment of The Monkey Wrench Gang.
Many of the contributors subscribe to Abbey’s maxim that sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul, and some, as “Red Emma Goldman” puts it, are probably out there right now, “letting the fury of their care be heard.” The monkey wrench rules these pages, visually and in spirit. The language is often earthy and the tone irreverent, as it should be.
Much to the editors’ credit, this paean includes dissenting voices. Despite loving his literary output, essayist (and HCN contributor) Ana Maria Spagna considers Abbey a half-hearted activist, “a city dweller who hiked the canyons in his off-time.” The man behind the myth can still raise hackles -- as any dead writer worth his salt should -- even among people who owe him much.
Beyond their goal of priming another generation of literary activists to venture out into the world and get their hands dirty, the editors of Matter Journal 13 hope that readers will “fall in love all over again with the wilderness.” This handsomely packaged collection of memorabilia succeeds, further magnifying the influence of the man who first rooted Canyon Country in the public’s imagination.© High Country News