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Eating the Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman

May 25, 2019

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I’m getting repetitive with my review of Klosterman books, but he is remarkably consistent across his body of work. The biggest variances are the topics of his essays and the themes of his books (when there is one). Despite the title, this book doesn’t seem to have a consistent theme, paleontological or otherwise. It’s just a collection of Klosterman essays. Which is to say, engaging, conversational style, sardonic sense of humor (I would have said “ironic sense of humor,” but after his essay about irony and his insistence that everything he writes is written authentically, even if he can’t guarantee it’s what he really thinks, I’ve temporarily lost a confident grasp on what irony is), and his use of pop culture as a springboard into other topics.

So what are the topics in this collection?

Interviewing people (including interviews with two of the best interviewers around—Ira Glass and Errol Morris) and authenticity. Kurt Cobain and David Koresh and non-insular culture. NBA players and how they are “enslaved” (his word, not mine—he acknowledges the diceyness of the word) by expectation. Rear Window and The Real World and voyeurism. Authenticity (again) and pseudonyms. Football as a game of innovation masquerading as a game of conservatism. The relationship between short- and long-term relevance as it relates to ABBA and AC/DC (it’s hard to not think he picked those two bands as examples because of their names). Mad Men and Pepsi and marketing and target markets. Weezer and how Rivers Cuomo is not ironic, though everyone expects him to be, which is itself ironic. And for the finale, none other than the Unabomber and what he got right about modern technology’s impact on modern society.

Other than the unique topics, Klosterman’s essays are peppered with interesting thought experiments and random trivia. As an example, he asks this: If you make a phone call into your own past to give a teenage version of yourself a 15-second message, what would you say? Which is a provocative hypothetical. But then he says that the answer to this question splits along gender lines, with women telling their younger self not to do something they later regretted and men telling their younger self to do something they didn’t do. Chuck doesn’t try to explain this difference, just lays it out there and moves on. But I find this kind of stuff fascinating.

And I enjoy his wry, if often arguable, observations and pronouncements about culture, like his observation that Americans have three types of laughs they use in conversation, whereas Germans only laugh when they find something genuinely funny. And that the laugh track on television shows is “a lucid manifestation of an anxious culture that doesn’t know what is and isn’t funny.” (I agree—the laugh track is a sign of a degenerate culture, as I also agree with his assertion that the unwarranted use of the exclamation point is “idiotic…the saddest kind of failure.”)

This is my fourth Klosterman book in the past five months. The second one maybe seemed a little less novel than the first, but since then I’ve found them consistently enjoyable. In the neighborhood of David Foster Wallace, but a little easier to parse, slightly less intellectual navel gazing. I guess I’ll continue with his books unless I get bored by them, but I don’t sense that happening anytime soon.

Skeletons on the Zahara by Dean King

May 24, 2019

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In 1812, the trading vessel The Commerce wrecked off the west coast of Africa, at the edge of the Sahara. The crew of  was captured and enslaved by the locals. They were trekked across the desert, sold and bought repeatedly, scorched by the sand and sun, beaten and starved, suffered from pestilence and disease. What they endured during their captivity is a remarkable story, and fans of Shackleton’s story, or that of the Whaleship Essex will find the plight of this crew as interesting.

The enslavement of the crew adds an interesting element to this story. In most survival tales, man is debased by the natural world, cut down to size by the weather, predators or lack of food and water. He is forced into competition with animals, forced to realize that he no longer sits above them on the food chain. Ironically, the system that dehumanized the crew of The Commerce was commerce. They became commodities, with market value. A Christian’s value, they learned, “fell somewhere between a tattered blanket and an adult camel.”

As one of the men observed, “No matter how bad things were, on the Sahara, they could always get worse.” Indeed, possibly different than many other survival tales, there is not a clearing of one obstacle to encounter another. Their experience was of one malady piled on top of another on top of another. In the end, the fact that any of them survived is remarkable. When the survivors were rescued, one of them, Riley, usually a 240-pound man, was under 90 pounds.

This book was compiled from two separate diary entries, clearly with extensive research. It can be a little tedious and repetitive at parts, but one might expect that from a story about men being forced to travel across the Sahara.

The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow

May 13, 2019

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When Don Winslow published The Power of the Dog in 2005, he couldn’t have known that he would finish his twenty-year-long project with the third book in the trilogy—The Border—hitting bookshelves in February, 2019. The thick, imposing book, on its cover an ominous photo of a wall, adorned in concertina wire, stretching across the desert, would sit on bookshelves as the talking heads on the television debated what to do about the migrant caravans headed toward our southern border, our President lied through his teeth daily about his wall (Mexico was going to pay for), and our border agents separated children from their parents in the name of what—security? There’s no way Winslow could have known how bad it was going to get.

But then, when you read The Power of the Dog, a novel about the first three decades of the drug war, you might think otherwise. Because back in 1975, it was already pretty bad.

This book spans three decades, with four characters at its center: Art Keller, a DEA agent; Adán Barrera, a Mexican drug lord; Nora Hayden, a prostitute; and Sean Callan, a gangster from New York.

If it sounds like a set of characters from “Stock Crime Novel Characters ‘r’ Us,” it is. Winslow’s doesn’t seem interested in breaking genre convention. If anything, he goes all in. The result is something that seems related to Phillip Marlow and Dennis Lehane, a book version of Sicario, stories ripped from the headlines, ultra-violent. It’s not as dark as Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, but it’s not literary either. It’s an action movie in book form, about morally compromised agents of morally compromised governments.

The writing won’t win any awards, but the plot moves. And moves. And moves. That’s the most challenging thing—the plot sprawls. I felt a little like I did after watching The Departed—like it probably didn’t need to be that long, but not really sure I’d cut anything.

I don’t know that this will make my favorites of the year list, but I’ll probably eventually get The Cartel and The Border. Art Keller is likable enough of a character and the story interesting enough. I’d like to see how it ends.

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The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires by Tim Wu

May 6, 2019

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This is a book about the history of communication technology, how different mediums shaped our world, and how the lifecycle of each is remarkably similar. Radio only seems like a quaint technology because it’s a century old. Not only has the world grown used to it, but two other mediums—television and the Internet—have relegated radio to a few standard use cases. But when radio was invented and introduced to the world, it sparked the same kind of idealism and worry that the Internet does today. The optimistic imagined a world made smaller, new forms of storytelling and commerce, while the pessimists saw the unravelling of social norms, the potential spread of dangerous ideas, threats to security and privacy.

Each technology starts with a period of decentralized lawlessness (usually accompanied by unreliable service and inconsistent formats). A wild west of sorts. Then the new medium becomes centralized, often with the help of the government. Commercial forces take over, with companies vying for bigger pieces of the pie. Eventual buyouts and mergers lead to an industry that is largely centralized, consolidated, and regulated. The original promise of complete freedom has been tamed by law and commercial realities. The flow of information is controlled and limited. Once this happens, innovation is often stifled by the companies in control, who fear to disrupt their own dominance, and the bits of innovation that happen at companies around the edges are often gobbled up by the big fish.

This happened with radio and television, and it’s happening with the Internet. It will happen with the next technology that comes along. Whether that’s depressing or comforting depends, I suppose, on whether you’re one of the optimists or pessimists. Nonetheless, this is a good history of communication technology. Some of it was familiar to me from my college classes, but the section on the Internet—and particularly how we’ve gone through this several times before—is fascinating.

My Abandonment by Peter Rock

April 21, 2019

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This is a fictional account of a Viet Nam vet and his teenage daughter who live hidden in a public park outside Portland. The idea was inspired by a true story—a series of news articles about such a father-daughter duo. The true story had no ending, so Rock wrote one. “I realized I had to tell the story myself in order to satisfy my curiosity,” he said in an interview. “Perhaps some might hesitate at making fiction out of real people’s lives, or see it as a real imposition. I am a little uneasy about it myself but hope that my effort is a testament to my enthusiasm and respect. And wonder.”

The story is told from the POV of the daughter, Caroline. Unlike some child narrators, who filter the story through their own innocence or naiveté, Caroline is smart, thoughtful and observant. She recognizes that she is different from other kids, but we don’t get the sense that she’s unreliable as a narrator.

I came to this story via an interview with Deborah Granik, who directed the excellent film Leave No Trace based on this book. The film is simpler and has some significant plot differences. But at the center of both the book and the film is the question of a parent’s responsibility to a child. When the parent rejects what society has to offer, what of the child? And as the child comes into her own, what is her reaction to her “off-the-grid” upbringing? How does she feel about being an outsider? What is her attitude toward her father?

In addition to the questions around the morality of raising a child outside of society, it addresses the important problems in our mental health system, particularly our support and reintegration of veterans.  The father suffers from PTSD, and the daughter cares for him as much as he cares for her.

The off-the-grid questions are the same asked in Tara Westover’s best-selling book, Educated, as well as the film Captain Fantastic. They’re tough questions. Perhaps notable, though, all of these works seem to give the same answer.

I would recommend the film version of this story over the book. Where Rock takes the plot in the book is a little befuddling, and Granik’s decision to revise it in the film is a good choice. Still, this is a readable and thought-provoking book, and both the father and daughter are likable characters.

 

 

2019 Q1 Movie Report

April 1, 2019

I was on paternity leave all of March, and the two months prior to that, I was spending a lot of time on planes. As a result, I had my best movie-watching quarter since senior year in college. Here’s the full list, with le creme on top and le poop on bottom.

The Top 10

Whiplash: This movie is phenomenal. A 2014 flick about a jazz drummer at the top music school in the country, it’s really about the desire to be something great. The acting is superb, particularly J.K. Simmons, who won the best supporting actor Oscar for his role as the hard-nosed teacher. The direction by Damien Chazelle (LA LA Land, First Man) is fantastic as well.  Most people might skip this because a movie about a jazz school doesn’t sound interesting, but this movie will appeal to people who have no interest in music too.

Apollo 11: In July of 1969, when NASA delivered on JFK’s 1963 challenge to land a person on the moon by the end of the decade, a documentary crew was there to capture the event for a planned theater-released film. The film never happened. But the footage—beautiful 72mm film of the technicians, the astronauts, the crowds and the atmosphere around the launch—was preserved, unreleased. Here it is cut together in a remarkable documentary. No narration. No cutaways to interviews or news footage. Reviews of this film are superlative and seem hyperbolic, but the movie totally pays it off. It’s stunning. I took my four-year-old and she loved it. I got chills at several parts. Definitely worth seeing on the big screen.

Free Solo: This was my favorite film from last year, and it was just as insane on second watching on the small screen. It’s a doc about Alex Honnald, a professional climber, attempting to free solo (climb without ropes) El Capitan, the famous 3,000-foot-tall granite face in Yosemite valley. It’s as much about the making of the film and the impact of the insane quest on his loved ones.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: I’ve seen this two and a half times. A set of six short westerns from the Coen Brothers, this was one of my favorite films from last year. It took some criticism for its nihilistic outlook, but it’s vintage Coen. Even on multiple watchings, I was finding new things to love.

Sicario: One of the best action films in recent years. A multiple-time re-watch for me. The trifecta of Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin and Emily Blunt balance this searing action film about the unseen war at the U.S.-Mexico border. Denis Villeneuve directs with cinematography by Roger Deakins = a film with the highest craft. I’m currently reading Taylor Sheridan’s original screenplay. Interesting to see the changes made as it went through production.

Lost in Translation: Bill Murray is funny, even when he’s playing it straight. This Sophia Coppola movie about a big-name American actor displaced in Tokyo is one of my all-time favorites. I’ve probably seen it 10 times and it never gets old.

Birdman: Won the Best Picture Oscar in 2015 (beating out Whiplash). Michael Keaton plays a movie star famous for his portrayal of an Iron Man/Batman-like superhero in a successful movie franchise, now trying to earn some artistic cred with an ambitious Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. The acting is fantastic across the board, and the story is a unique mix of dark comedy and magical realism.   

First Man: An excellent movie about the people behind the first moon landing. Ryan Gosling plays Neil Armstrong. Intense, emotional, exciting, human. Very well produced, all-around. Directed by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash). Pairs well with Apollo 11.

Leave No Trace: A really good under-the-radar movie from last year, based on the novel My Abandonment. It’s about a father and daughter who living off the grid. A quiet, thoughtful movie.

Green Book: The acting is great. It’s well-produced. It’s definitely worth a watch. Should it have won Best Picture? I haven’t seen all the others, so it’s hard to say. But this is a sanitized, pretty quaint take on race in America. The directing is sometimes heavy-handed, and the conversations remain pretty superficial. Still, worth watching for storytelling and characters.

Also Good

Wind River: A murder mystery on an Indian Reservation brings out the FBI (Elizabeth Olson) and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Tracker (Jeremy Renner). The inhospitable landscape and tight community are the perfect setting for a tense mystery. Written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Hell or High Water), the distribution of this film got caught up in the Weinstein scandal, but it’s well worth the watch.

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Enemy: I’m watching films of French-Canadian director, Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Arrival). This is an adaptation of Portuguese writer José Saramago’s Kafka-esque novel The Double. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a college professor who discovers that he has a doppelganger. He meets his identical match, and (as the title implies) things don’t go that well.

Prisoners: A super-intense kidnapping thriller by Denis Villeneuve, starring Hugh Jackman, as the father of one of two missing children, and Jake Gyllenhaal, as the detective on the case. Reminiscent of Seven and Zodiac. Only a couple heavy-handed missteps scuff what is overall a great thriller.

Blakkklansman: Spike Lee hits about one in three for me. His more understated films—Inside Man, 25th Hour and Summer of Sam—are great. A lot of his other films try too hard. This one teeters right on the edge. Really well done, but walks a tightrope with the over-the-top performance of John David Washington, who plays a real-life African-American cop who infiltrated the KKK.

Bridge of Spies: This 2015 Steven Spielberg spy movie was really interesting to watch. Set during the Cold War, Tom Hanks plays a lawyer who is hired to represent a captured Soviet spy, but he is eventually pulled into the role of negotiator for two American captives as well—a pilot captured by the U.S.S.R. and a student detained in East Germany. Well-produced, well-written, well-acted, with just one forgivable misstep (a completely absurd and unnecessary action scene). This is based on a true story.

Beirut: Jon Hamm is a negotiator pulled back into Beirut after a tragic exit years ago. A terrorist group has taken a hostage and requested him as their intermediary. A suspenseful espionage movie if one is willing to suspend disbelief a couple times.

Dunkirk: Christopher Nolan’s WWII flick about the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk. A pretty remarkable story and great production value, but WWII films are a crowded field, and it’s hard to top Band of Brothers.

Captain Fantastic: This movie is strikingly similar to Leave No Trace—a father (Viggo Mortenson) lives with his family off the grid in the Pacific Northwest. A little more heavy-handed than Leave No Trace, but thought-provoking and entertaining nonetheless.

The Drop: Based on a short Dennis Lehane novel, this tight film stars Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini (Gandolfini’s last film). Both actors bring plenty of gravitas, and the whole film oozes menace and bad intentions. Fans of The Wire will like this suspenseful crime novel-turned-film.

Incendies: Another intense film from director Denis Villeneuve. At the request of their deceased mother, a brother and sister conduct a search for their estranged father and brother in a war-torn Middle Eastern country. Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee, 2011. In French with subtitles.

Source Code: A mind-bender from director Duncan Jones (his Moon is excellent). Jake Gyllenhaal plays a U.S. Army captain injured in Afghanistan, now inserted into an experimental machine that allows him to experience the last 8 minutes of someone else’s life. In an action version of Groundhog Day, he must repeatedly relive the same sequence of a terrorist attack until he can figure it out.

The Meyerowitz Stories: Noah Bombach (The Squid and the Whale) delivers another of what he does best: neurotic New Yorkers who feel like they’ve dropped out of a Salinger novel. Here, Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller play the sons of Dustin Hoffman, an aging, jaded sculptor. Ridiculous people who provide some good laughs.

The Lobster: A bizarre movie about a hotel where people to go to find a mate. If they fail to hook up in a designated period of time, they are turned into the animal of their choice. A commentary on our strange dating rituals.

Southpaw: Jake Gyllenhaal plays a boxer on the skids. The boxing isn’t totally convincing, but better than most boxing films. Acting is solid, and overall entertaining. Unfortunately, the only real surprise happens in the first act—after that the film is pretty predictable.

Watchmen: Zac Snyder’s ultra-slick take on the ultra-dark superhero comic. I prefer this kind of movie—that turns the superhero genre on its head—to the more predictable fare of most superhero flicks. The director’s cut, at over three hours, luxuriates in the moodiness.

Molly’s Game: Based on the true story of Molly Bloom, who ran an illegal high-stakes poker game for big names in Hollywood, business, music and crime. Aaron Sorkin wrote and directed, and Jessica Chastain plays a convincing genius. Solid.

Hostiles: Christian Bale plays a veteran of the American-Indian Wars who is ordered to escort an aging Cheyenne war chief from New Mexico to Montana. A riveting Western with a dark heart.

A Couple Classics

Bladerunner: Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi classic was ahead of its time. Set in a grim, futuristic 2019, this story of artificial intelligence gone wrong holds up in every regard. I’d somehow never seen it. A slow, brooding pace, worth the watch.

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Stripes: Still holds up. The first half of the movie is one of the best comedies ever. Second half loses some steam, but the Murray-Ramis combo is comedic gold, with some John Candy thrown in for good measure.

 

Some Heisters

Logan Lucky: A funny, well-produced heist movie. A gang of goobers plot a robbery of a NASCAR track. Lovable cast, well-played comedy, in the capable hands of director Steven Soderbergh.

The Crew (Braqueurs): An intense French heist film. After pulling off an armored car robbery to perfection, a crew of thieves draws unwanted admiration from a crime boss who wants them to do a job for him. Solid action, solid characters, an impressively tight run-time of only 81 min. In French with subtitles.

Den of Thieves: An intense, well-produced heist movie. Not shy about leaning into all the conventions of the genre. If you like Heat, worth checking out.

The Place Beyond the Pines: A three-part cops and robbers flick that nearly buckles under its own ambition. It’s held up by strong performances by Ryan Gosling (a motorcycle stunt man turned bank robber) and Bradley Cooper (the cop). This was my second viewing, and I appreciated the big swing more this time.

Family Movie Nights

Every Friday night, someone picks a movie for us to all watch together. Picks rotate week to week.

Despicable Me 3: My favorite part of this fourth Minions movie is the throw-back soundtrack. Generally goofy and entertaining.

Monsters, Inc.: A classic. Playful idea, so well executed. One of Pixar’s best.

Frozen: 95th viewing. Doesn’t get better each time. Seriously, I don’t get the appeal of this one. The plot is odd with no flow. The weird little snowman is the best part, with the music a distant second.

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs: In the final sequence, a monkey with a thought-speaking device is on the wing of a plane fighting off a gang of deranged gummy bears. This kind of consistent weirdness, paired with the good message of the movie, got this movie thumbs ups from the whole family.

Ferdinand: The girls loved this one. Didn’t operate on two levels (some adult jokes thrown in) like the best Pixar movies, but has some fun action sequences.

Probably Skip These

The Sisters Brothers: This is a bummer to say, because I loved the book. The movie has great acting and production value, but the slow, meandering story is perhaps better suited to a novel. Tonally, it also felt unsure. Maybe just a book that doesn’t translate well into a movie.

The Dirt: This is a biopic of Mötley Crüe, based on the legendary book by Neil Strauss (legendary if you care about 80s hair metal bands). It’s a borderline b-movie, but entertaining if you care about the Crüe.

Connor McGregor: Notorious: Not a huge fan of his. Enjoyed the training sequences and behind-the-scenes footage, but completely uneven. As it builds to the most interesting parts of the story—the fights with Nate Diaz and Floyd Mayweather, it devolves into a series of highlight clips.

Triple Frontier: Netflix, experimenting with the formula, released this in theaters almost simultaneously with their on-platform release. Which is all fine, but it didn’t make for a better product. Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaacson and Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy) play Special Ops vets who come back together to pull off a heist of a drug lord in the jungle of South America. As you can imagine, things don’t go as planned. Unfortunately, too much time is spent on the first act—Isaacson’s character rounding up his crew—and not enough on the third act, post-heist. Not terrible, but fairly predictable—even the “big twist.”

Avengers: I’ve heard Infinity War is good, so I wanted to watch the first couple Avengers movies first. Mildly entertaining, but I literally scrubbed through 20 minutes of the 40-minute final battle. I can only take so much flying around and energy fields and big explosions. Made me miss some of the super hero movies that wrap up with a simple one-on-one fight scene.

The Boondock Saints: A pointless, violence-drenched vigilante movie with nothing beyond style (and the style isn’t great). Possibly forgivable if it had been made 10 years earlier than it was, before Tarantino and Guy Ritchie came along. But it was made in 1999, which makes it just another derivative Tarantino wannabe. I don’t remember who recommended this to me.

Miami Vice: This is the only partial watch on the list. I like Michael Mann (director), so I’m a bit mystified with what happened to this gritty take on the 80’s TV show. The script is bland, the actors bring no appeal (please stop casting Colin Farrell as a lead), and the story is rushed. I watched half, then stopped for the night. The next day, I realized I had zero interest in finishing it.

 

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.