The Monkey Wrench Gang Critique

Abbey, Monkey Wrench Gang cover
The Monkey Wrench Gang is one of those rarities in literature: a novel that spawns a movement, literally comes to life. What William Gibson’s science fiction has done for cyberspace and virtual lives based on networked computing, Edward Abbey’s works did for monkeywrenching and actions to protect the environment.

At the same time, The Monkey Wrench Gang (or MWG) is just a good story. More than that, it is just good storytelling. Abbey wrote the novel with the intent of producing a black comedy, a novel more like As I Lay Dying than Ecotopia. Abbey is quoted as saying he wrote MWG, in which the gang sets out to destroy one of Abbey’s most hated monuments to so-called civilization, the Glen Canyon Dam, as “indulgence of spleen and anger from a position of safety behind my typewriter. But that was a tertiary motive. Mainly I wanted to entertain and amuse.”

MWG is peopled with comic book characters, mythical beings who perform tremendous feats in their efforts to right the wrongs they find in the world. These are men with biceps bigger than your thighs, and large-breasted women whose tops won’t stay buttoned. They are simply bigger than life; they must be, for the wrongs they are fighting are those of civilization itself. Abbey created an entire mythology in his rage against the machinery destroying his precious desert, and inspired real people to take up where his characters left the job unfinished. As James P. Carse notes, “Whole civilizations rise from stories — and can rise from nothing else.”

We first meet George Washington Hayduke in “Origins II: George W. Hayduke.” A grotesquely lopsided character, Hayduke is nothing if not purely American. He is as individualistic as any Jeffersonian could be, and he does not shirk his duty; he served with the Green Beret in Vietnam. That said, he also represents one of Abbey’s best portrayals of a social anarchist, taking pleasure where he finds it, living fully in the present, abiding by no authority greater than his own. While each of MWG‘s four protaganists brings essential qualities to the gang, it is Hayduke who most completely embodies the spirit of freedom that Abbey wants you to enjoy—and emulate.

In “The American Logging Industry: Plans and Problems,” Abbey takes aim at one of his favorite targets (and former employer) the U.S. Forest Service and its primary constituent, the logging industry. He isolates two members of the gang, Hayduke and Bonnie Abbzug, by letting Doc Sarvis and Seldom Seen Smith each take a break back into civilization after the gang blows up a railroad bridge, sending an entire coal train over the edge (but no one gets hurt). With the others out of the way we get to see Hayduke’s attitudes toward women, as well as Bonnie’s reaction to them. George views Bonnie as a toy to have his way with whenever he pleases but she is no pushover and turns the encounter to her own advantage: in the end she is on top. Abbey uses Bonnie to exercise and demonstrate his own attitudes toward women. Consider this passage from Hayduke Lives!, the sequel to MWG, in which Bonnie reflects upon the male of the species:


They all think they’re so smart and they’re all so dumb. Crude. Crude people, men. Dense as rocks. They think like rocks, in a straight line, nothing but gravity, straight down the hill, that’s how they think. No feelings. They think they feel but they only feel with their skin, that’s how they feel. Skin deep. Nothing makes sense to them unless you can explain it. Have to draw them pictures, diagrams, charts, formulas, equations, simple propositions with a subject and a verb and an object, that’s it, that’s all they, only way they, no sensitivity, no inner understanding, no empathy. Sympathy, sure, that’s on the surface, only skin, they understand sympathy and can do a pretty good act with sympathy but empathy—? Wouldn’t know what you were talking about.

I feel sorry for men.

Bonnie is the gang’s Earth mother. Note that Hayduke’s “rape” of Bonnie occurs just before we encounter the logging industry’s rape of the Kaibab National Forest. So after witnessing Hayduke’s decidedly non-feminist attitude it comes as somewhat of a shock that he is so avowedly determined to save the wilderness. Not only does it seem out of character, but he cannot even make clear his motives for saving the wilderness. In this way, Abbey shows the difficulty encountered by anyone of a preservationist’s persuasion to explain his or her own reasons for wanting to preserve resources that could be used by civilization. As Abbey states: “The Explainer’s lot is not an easy one.”  In the end, Hayduke has to admit he is unable to elucidate a rational argument for saving trees, he simply knows with the omniscience granted only to mythical gods that his mission is just.

Then we see Hayduke and Bonnie carry out his mission by monkeywrenching a clear-cut operation in “Strangers in the Night.” It is portions of MWG such as this one that earned the book its reputation as a handbook for ecoterrorism. We learn of several actions of environmental activists through Hayduke and Bonnie’s capers in the woods. And then, just as Hayduke is about to drain the oil out of some heavy equipment for the first time, Abbey’s most beloved character, Jack Burns, arrives to show him how it’s done. Without Burns’ mentoring, Hayduke would have been a mere nuisance to the Georgia-Pacific crew, which would probably have noticed zero oil pressure before things got really bad. But with Burns to show him how to start the engine and run it without oil until it seizes, Hayduke is able to thoroughly wreck an extremely large and expensive piece of machinery. Note too how Burns, the brave cowboy, arrives unheard and unseen because he utilizes a “lower” level of technology, the horse. And he takes care of the watchman for Hayduke such that Hayduke doesn’t even know there is a watchman, grabbing the keys to the tractor at the same time. His classically understated dialogue contrasts beautifully with Hayduke’s inability to explain himself as he bungles through a job that Burns would have carried off with precision and grace. Finally, Burns prevents Hayduke from using the tractor to ram the shed in which the watchman lies gagged and bound, thus preserving the gang’s own motto: No one gets hurt. With “Strangers in the Night” we get Abbey’s truest statement of purpose: to wreck the machinery of modern civilization before it can destroy all that is good in the world, and to do so without harming civilization’s inhabitants.

MWG is significant because it started something. The book has not gone out of print since it was first published, and has been read by millions. Abbey was not the first to advocate ecoterrorism. In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau, upon seeing the construction of a dam on the Concord River, empathizes with the fish that will be harmed by the dam, saying “I for one am with thee, and who knows what may avail a crowbar against Billerica dam.” Bigger dams require bigger crowbars. Other menacing machinery require their own methods of determent. Abbey’s method was the novel.

His fiction is credited with inspiring the environmental action organizations that sprang up after MWG‘s publication in 1975. Earth First! borrowed heavily from Abbey’s ideas. Other organizations carry the torch as well: Greenpeace has grown to become an international expression of monkeywrenching aimed primarily at misuse of marine environments, and E.L.F., the Environmental Liberation Front, recently made headlines by monkeywrenching the ski industry in Colorado, in a show of support for re-introduction of snowshoe lynx to the Rocky Mountains.

Fiction can invent a movement. In fact, that is all that ever has. In the following chapters, we will let Abbey tell us in his own words his conviction that creating movement in society is what writing is all about.


Abbey, E. 1990. Hayduke Lives!: A Novel

Bishop, J., Jr. 1994. Epitaph For A Desert Anarchist: The Life And Legacy Of Edward Abbey

Carse, J.P. 1986. Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility

Categories: This Land -- Abbey, Carson, and Leopold

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