Fire on the Mountain (Edward Abbey)

» July 20th, 2019

The landscape before me was much the same as that in the mural on the wall of the Wagon Wheel Bar.

Edward Abbey is not much of a novelist in my opinion. His non-fiction, most notably Desert Solitaire, is among the best in the American canon. But his novels are pedantic, preachy, and contrived. And yes, I still read them because, well, it’s Edward Abbey. My latest bout of frustration with this paradox was with Fire on the Mountain (1962).

The quote above rang a similar chord as did the one I last wrote about from Fermor’s A Time of Gifts. The big theme–the interchange between art and reality (as a general rule I’m a fan of both)– intrigues me. In the case of this quote, Abbey turns us to the iconography of the west, a region of the country that has arguably been shaped more by the imagery of it than our actual interchange with it. Is there really any way to experience the grandeur of, say, the Grand Canyon in its singular power without being biased by the endless imagery we have consumed before seeing it?

This was a question once asked by the great southern novelist and essayist Walker Percy (in Message in a Bottle). Years ago I took it to heart, and accepted it as a challenge, and headed to Arizona. After spending 17 hours running through the Canyon, starting at 3:30 am, I can say with some confidence that I saw the beast on its own terms. So I was disappointed in Abbey’s protagonist so easily accepting the interchangeability of tavern mural and actual landscape. Granted, the kid–Billy Vogelin Starr–is only twelve, but one hopes that he grows up a bit, and learns to think for himself. (Note: it’s possible that the quote is ironic, and that irony will only be evident at the end of the novel, when Billy has breathed the landscape–but I’m not sure Abbey was that kind of novelist.)

In the novel, Big Gov’ment takes Grandpa Vogelin’s land from him. Much of the novel involves Billy and grandpa rueing the imposition of the feds (Abbey’s libertarianism is a sticking point for me). What Billy never realizes, and what Abbey never seems to intuit, is that the supposed tyranny of Bureau of Land Management is nothing compared to the tyranny of the western iconography that wants us to go west young rich family to the nearest bullshit ski resort.

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