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The Red Caddy: Into the Unknown with Edward Abbey by Charles Bowden

March 25, 2019

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This is a short, poignant memoir of one great writer by another great writer. Both are favorites of mine. Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire is one of my top books. Bowden, known in his later years as a writer about the darkest aspects of human nature—the border conflict and, specifically, the violence of Juarez (Murder City)—started his career writing about Nature—the bats, the water table, the land, etc.. Both were desert rats, the Southwest the setting and topic of most of their writing. They were friends, cynics and cranks (though as cranks go, Abbey was in a class of his own).

Abbey died in 1989, Bowden in 2014. This manuscript was found on Bowden’s computer. It cuts between a memorial for Abbey and Bowden’s various memories of the old coot. Rather than a linear narrative, it gives us snapshots, scenes that capture Abbey’s singular spirit. As with most of Bowden’s writing, it is poetic and razor sharp. He has a dark and dry sense of humor. Of Abbey: “He was reasonably polite, didn’t shit on the floor, and was well read.”

Kindred spirits. Loners and rebels, both filled with anger and love at the same time—an anger that seemed to come from their love. They were angry at the government, angry at the violation of the land, angry at stupid people. And Bowden was angry at the people who came out of the woodwork to lionize Abbey (including The New York Times, which gave Abbey a two-page obituary after “pissing on his head for decades”).

I think this translation into desert sage, Western god, or whatever is a diminishment of both him and his words. He was a man born to strangle gurus with their own entrails and everything he ever thought or did is pointless if he is suddenly indispensable and irreplaceable…

It’s very depressing to know and like someone and then have them die and be made into a saint. It is like watching them being buried alive.

Abbey was no saint. Whether or not you take seriously his suggestion to blow up the Glen Canyon Dam (fictionalized in The Monkey Wrench Gang), he had a kind of personal terrorism. He was racist, for one. Had “the gut responses of the nation’s mountaineer-rock-hard-white-trash hillbillies.” Sexist, another. Always chasing tail. He had no interest in political correctness. Was rough around the edges, one might say. Wasn’t out to make friends. Didn’t give a shit about what anyone else thought. And yet—this is what Bowden hates—people want to whitewash all that and make the man out to be holy. It’s untrue. It erases part of who Abbey was. Abbey wouldn’t have wanted it.

“If there’s anyone here I’ve failed to insult, I apologize,” Abbey once said. Bowden observes, “In the five years since he died, he’s cleaned up his act. No one talks much about a lot of things he said or why he said them…Somehow they’ve slipped a giant condom over his life’s work.”

Abbey was buried in an unmarked spot in the desert, a place only his friends knew. Of course, there is at least one book about searching for his final resting place. To which he would probably tell the people, “leave me the hell alone.” Bowden tries—again this wasn’t necessarily written to be published—at the very least, to tell it like it was with Abbey. To be as true as one can be about a person. “Life is too short not to be a maniac,” Bowden muses. Abbey, that old desert eccentric, probably would have appreciated this approach.

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Charles Bowden (left) meeting Edward Abbey (center) on Abbey’s back porch in the early 1970’s. Photo by P.K. Weis.

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