Book Review by Pat Harrington :

The Monkey Wrench Gang
by Edward Abbey         ISBN 038000741X

The Monkey Wrench Gang has been described as an ecological version of Bonnie and Clyde.

The book details the motives and actions of four principal characters - Dr. A.K. Sarvis, George W. Hayduke, 'Seldom Seen' Smith and Ms. Bonnie Abbzug. All four for different reasons come to decide that direct action is necessary to halt the erosion of the environment. The problem which faces all of us who live on this planet is very movingly described. Our emotions are stirred by descriptions such as in this passage:-

"They stared down. A few dead fish floated belly up on the oily surface among the orange peels and picnic plates. One waterlogged tree, a hazard to navigation hung suspended in the static medium. The smell of decay, faint but unmistakable, rose four hundred and fifty feet to their nostrils. Somewhere below that still surface , down where the cloudy silt was settling out, the drowned cottonwoods must yet be standing their dead branches thick with algae, their ancient knees laden with mud. Somewhere under the heavy burden of water going nowhere, under the silence, the old rocks of the river channel waited for the promised resurrection" (p.112).


This kind of love of nature also motivates the character 'Seldom Seen' Smith. At one dramatic point (although an event tinged with humour) Smith calls on God to destroy a huge dam. His prayer reveals a longing for what was, a beautiful way of life which has been destroyed. Addressing God he makes an anguished plea:-

"you know and I know what it was like here, before them bastards from Washington moved in and ruined it al. You remember the river, how fat and golden it was in June, when the big run-off come down from the Rockies? Remember the deer on the sandbars and the blue herons in the willows and the catfish so big and tasty and how they'd bite on spoiled salami? Remember the crick that come down through Bridge Canyon, how green and clear and cool it was? God, it's enough to make a man sick. Say, you recall old Woody Edgell up at Hite and the old ferry he used to run across the river? That crazy contraption of his hangin' on cables; remember that damn thing?"(p.32)

Another character is also incensed by the changes in the environment. After Vietnam Special Forces veteran George W. Hayduke returns:

"to the American Southwest he had been remembering only to find it no longer what he remembered, no longer the clear and classical desert, the pellucid sky he roamed in dream. Someone or something was changing things."

Another character, less simple and instinctive, more political, has the answer as to who is to blame:-

Dr. Sarvis thought of the plain of fire and the oligarchs and oligopoly beyond: Peabody Coal only one arm of Anaconda Copper; Anaconda only a limb of United States Steel; US Steel intertwined in incestuous embrace with the Pentagon, TVA, Standard Oil, General Dynamics, Dutch Shell, I.G. Farben-industrie; the whole conglomerated cartel spread out upon half the planet Earth like a global Kraken, pan-tentacled. wall-eyed an parrot-beaked, it's brain like a bank of computer data centres, its blood the flow of money, its heart a radioactive dynamo, its language the technotronic monologue of number imprinted on magnetic tape." (p.159).


To this point I could accept many of the points made in the book. I can imagine the effect of global capitalism on the wilderness. I understand the spiritual and symbolic importance of such places. I despise the assault on Nature by men motivated by greed - men who 'solve' problems as if they were external to their nature - thus creating another ten in the process. I accept the definition of the problem given in the book - it makes me sad and it makes me angry. Where I have problems with the book is the solution it proposes - acts of ecologically inspired sabotage.

The characters who accept this solution are in many respects unlike one another. Hayduke for instance continually argues for the use of guns against those who might interfere. At one point he argues that some cows should be shot to slow pursuers (p.121) and answers criticism of people who litter highways with the words:-

"why the fuck shouldn't I throw fucking beer cans along the highways?"(p.65)

Ecological objections to people riding in fast cars, using machine technology to conduct a campaign of sabotage are simply summarily dismissed. On the occasion of the purchase of a McCulloch chain saw for instance:-

"it did raise the ecological question, whatever that meant, of noise and air-pollution, the excessive consumption of metal and energy. Endless ramifications... 'No' the Doctor said. 'Forget all that, our duty is to destroy billboards."

The question of the wide divergence of methods deemed by different members of the group to be acceptable is dealt with by raising action over doctrine. Dr Sarvis states at one point:-

"We'll work it all out as we go along. Let our practice form our doctrine thus assuring precise theoretical coherence." (p.65)


Another possible answer to this problem is the insistence that all actions should be conducted on the basis of unanimity:-

"'No voting 'Doc said, 'We're not going to have any tyranny of the majority in this organisation. We proceed on the principle of unanimity. What we do we do all together or not at all. This is a brotherhood we have here, not a legislative assembly'" (p.157)


It is very difficult to see such a principle working for such a group in practice. A group which works on such a principle is the Society of Friends (popularly known as the Quakers). It took them many years to decide that a Friend should not own slaves and there are still some Friends who are serving officers in the Armed Forces! In practice most work is delegated to committees! Can you imagine a Direct Action group working on this basis?

To put action before doctrine is to put the cart before the horse. Many of the problems hat are displayed in later parts of the Monkey Wrench Gang result from this fundamental mistake.

As a fantasy novel The Monkey Wrench Gang is a very good read. The humour is seductive parodying the style of Empire hero builders such as Ballantyne. Chapter headings are given such names as 'George and Bonnie Carry On', 'Search and Rescue on the Job' and 'The Raid at Comb Wash'.


The book also parodies conservative American precepts of teamwork and purpose by applying them in somewhat unconventional circumstances.

"With a five-gallon can of gasoline he sploshed about the legs and support members of the selected target, then applied a match. Everyone should have a hobby."

Read on a fantasy level and read for the descriptions of what is happening to our World The Monkey Wrench Gang serves a purpose. Groups such as Earth First! who have been inspired to action by its contents are unlikely to have a long-term impact. Capitalism as a psychological as well as economic system is too powerful. The hard road of education and persuasion is the only route to success.

OK, you've convinced me. I want to buy it.