Guest Review: The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey

Review by Laura at 125Pages.

Rating: 1 star

EdwardAbbeyTheMonkeyWrenchGangGoodReads Synopsis:

Ed Abbey called The Monkey Wrench Gang, his 1975 novel, a “comic extravaganza.” Some readers have remarked that the book is more a comic book than a real novel, and it’s true that reading this incendiary call to protect the American wilderness requires more than a little of the old willing suspension of disbelief.

The story centers on Vietnam veteran George Washington Hayduke III, who returns to the desert to find his beloved canyons and rivers threatened by industrial development. On a rafting trip down the Colorado River, Hayduke joins forces with feminist saboteur Bonnie Abbzug, wilderness guide Seldom Seen Smith, and billboard torcher Doc Sarvis, M.D., and together they wander off to wage war on the big yellow machines, on dam builders and road builders and strip miners.

As they do, his characters voice Abbey’s concerns about wilderness preservation (“Hell of a place to lose a cow,” Smith thinks to himself while roaming through the canyonlands of southern Utah. “Hell of a place to lose your heart. Hell of a place… to lose. Period”). Moving from one improbable situation to the next, packing more adventure into the space of a few weeks than most real people do in a lifetime, the motley gang puts fear into the hearts of their enemies, laughing all the while. It’s comic, yes, and required reading for anyone who has come to love the desert.


Today we visit Utah with The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey. EW says – “Abbey’s tale of four ecological activists seeking to destroy the Glen Canyon Dam became a primer for other green-minded saboteurs.”

The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey is touted as a comic look at social justice warriors. True environmentalists that strive to bring the land back to its natural state. Um, no. That is not at all the book I read. What I read was a book steeped in misogyny, homophobia, stereotyping and stupidity. From the derision of Native Americans, to showing the only Mormon member of the group as a polygamist, this book played everyone as a buffoon.

The plot was a grand look at what a bored drunk man will concoct when he gives no thought to others. George is painted as a lover of the natural state who is upset by the creeping industrialism on the desert he calls home. He decides that action must be taken, extreme action. Because blowing up bridges is cool but littering is just fine – “Of course I litter the public highway. Every chance I get. After all, it’s not the beer cans that are ugly; it’s the highway that is ugly.”  The writing was a mishmash of clichés and was difficult to read at times due to the constant changing of tone and pace. The world built was also difficult to navigate as locations moved frequently and at times I was unsure what state they were even in. The emotions and the characters were also all over the place. Everyone but the “gang” was painted as ignorant and useless and it became quite grating.

Some books get better with age and become classics. The Monkey Wrench Gang is not one of those books. It was a draining experience to read it and I cannot understand why it is considered by many to be so good. It has a 4.3 star rating on Amazon but I cannot fathom how. An example of the comedic showcases, to me, what was once thought great, but I just see it as super lowbrow.

“All this violence,” Doc said. “We are a law-abiding people.” “What’s more American than violence?” Hayduke wanted to know. “Violence, it’s asmerican as pizza pie.” “Chop suey,” said Bonnie. “Chile con carne.” “Bagels and lox.”

As for the connection to Utah, I did not really see it as an overall. Utah was not mentioned until 60% into the book and then as more of a joke (see the polygamist). Sadly my home state of Arizona fielded most of the action with New Mexico coming in second and Utah as third. The Glen Canyon Dam, the featured target, is also in Arizona not Utah, so again, I have to wonder if the EW staff read the books before placing them in the states.

The five players are Dr. and Mrs. Sarvis, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and their communal probation officer, a young fellow named Greenspan, who is a relative newcomer to the state of Utah. (Newcomers are always welcome in the Beehive State but are advised to set their watches back fifty years when entering.)

Favorite lines – “The river in its measureless sublimity rolled softly by, whispering of time. Which heals, they say, all. But does it? The stars looked kindly down. A lie. A wind in the willows suggested sleep.”

Biggest cliché – I will save you even if you do not want saving.

Have you read The Monkey Wrench Gang, or added it to your TBR?


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