10 September 2008

Desert noir

Edward Abbey's Fire on the Mountain is not really noir. Tragedy is a more suitable descriptor. It is a single, simple story with dramatic power, evoking fear and pity. Moreover, it meets Aristotle's demand that tragedy must have both lexis and melos (diction and melody). Mr. Abbey is well-known for his beautiful prose, in particular his descriptions of the American Southwest. It is unfortunate that his most famous book, The Monkeywrench Gang, bears little resemblance to his other work. That book is a potboiler, a comic romp, with a cast of characters that fall somewhere between the A-Team and The Merry Pranksters. The constant Abbey themes are there--rebellion against authority, the struggle for individualism in a mass-produced world, and the loss of our connection to nature and wildness--but the humorous tone, for me, borders on silly. I much prefer the dark, sardonic power of Good News, for example. Plus, like a good work of noir fiction, it is short. Terse, tense, well-paced, no wasted words, that is where Abbey shines. I think you will find the lesser-known novels far more rewarding. I read his seminal non-fiction book Desert Solitaire in college, and it had a profound impact on my life and thinking. I think anyone who loves our wild country should start there. Warning: you won't see the world the same way afterwards.

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