I first came to like Edward Abbey's writing when I encountered a passage that explained he loved the godforsaken Southwestern desert not despite the rattlesnakes, but because of them. What a cranky, irritable soul! As he explained in his 1968 classic "Desert Solitaire":
"Now when I write of paradise I mean Paradise, not the banal Heaven of the saints. When I write 'paradise' I mean not apple trees and golden women but also scorpions and tarantulas and flies, rattlesnakes and Gila monsters, sandstorms, volcanos and earthquakes, bacteria and bear, cactus, yucca, bladderweed, ocotillo and mesquite, flash floods and quicksand, and yes -- disease and death and the rotting of the flesh."
You probably are suspecting that Abbey (1927-1989) didn't sugarcoat very much. He was a writer of immense and savage anger, especially when it came to anything and anybody that threatened to despoil his beloved Southwest. It was rage that fueled his eight books of fiction and his 12 books of nonfiction. A year before he died, he explained in the essay "A Writer's Credo," "I write to entertain my friends and exasperate my enemies. . . . I write to oppose injustice, to defy power and to speak for the voiceless."
Abbey, not surprisingly, has been adopted as a patron saint by many environmentalists; he is their Thomas Paine, interested not in compromise and mutual understanding but in a defiant partisanship. Abbey loved and hated with equal enthusiasm, and that passion is evident throughout "A Serpent's Paradise."
Editor John Macrae organizes this book more or less in chronological order, starting from Abbey's childhood in Pennsylvania to the years before his death in Arizona at the age of 62. He quotes Wendell Berry, the farmer/poet and a friend of the author: "Abbey was an autobiographer: whether writing fact or fiction, he remains Edward Abbey, speaking as and for himself, fighting, literally, for dear life."
The selected pieces are fiction and nonfiction, sometimes accompanied by a commentary by Mr. Macrae about Abbey's publishing or personal status at the time.
In that respect, this is a useful introduction to this remarkable writer. Even in this relatively brief forum -- 400 pages can cover but a minuscule part of his works -- you get a good sense of the beautiful savagery of his writing. Abbey could demolish and he could soar in poetic brilliance. An example of the former, from his 1970 "Appalachian Wilderness: The Great Smoky Mountains":
"Sylva must have once been a lovely town. . . . Now it is something else, for the streets are grimy and noisy, jammed always with motor traffic, the river is a sewer, and the sky a pall of poisonous filth. The obvious villain in the picture is the local Mead's Paper Mill, busily pumping its garbage into the air and into the river, but general traffic and growth must bear the rest of the blame.
"When I commented to one of the town's leading citizens, a fine old Southern gentleman, about the perpetual stink in the air, he replied, 'Why son, that there smells lahk money to me.' Smug and smiling all the way to the bank, where -- I hope -- he drops dead on the doorstep."
Then there's this description of sand dunes, from 1984's "Beyond the Wall":
"A simple but always varied beauty. Shades of color that change from hour to hour -- bright golden in morning and afternoon, a pallid tan beneath the noon sun, platinum by moonlight, blue-sheened under snow, metallic silver when rimed with hoarfrost, flowing like heated iron and sunrise and sunset, lavender by twilight."
While "The Serpents of Paradise" captures the essence of Abbey's nonfiction, a newcomer to his fiction may not gain much from the excerpts gathered here. His novels, such as "The Monkey Wrench Gang," "Good News" and "Fire on the Mountain," are too bitterly satirical, too apocalyptic for this truncated format.
Some readers will find Abbey's attitude overbearing, his arguments unfair, his whole persona quite annoying. And he would agree. In "The Journey Home," he wrote: "I am -- really am -- an extremist, one who lives and loves by choice far out on the very verge of things, on the edge of the abyss, where this world falls off into the depths of another. That's the way I like it."
In "The Journey Home," Abbey told of how he came to love the Southwest and live in it. And it's there we find the best explanation of Edward Abbey: "Like so many others in this century I found myself a displaced person shortly after birth and have been looking half my life for a place to take my stand. Now
that I think I've found it, I must defend it."
Mr. Warren's reviews appear Mondays in The Sun.
Title: "The Serpents of Paradise: A Reader"
Author: Edward Abbey
Publisher: John Macrae/Henry Holt
-! Length, price: 400 pages, $25