Desert Solipsist

A new Ed Abbey biography doesn't quite tell all, but reveals almost enough.

First, I must say that I am not a proper reviewer for the new, scholarly biography of Edward Abbey by James M. Cahalan: I was married to Ed for six years back in the mid-Cretaceous (1973-1979). This is also, of course, why Tucson Weekly editor James Reel asked me to do it, but not before he'd been turned down by Chuck Bowden, who'd already blurbed the book. As everybody knows, Tucson is a town with at most two degrees of separation.

Not that my personal history is any particular distinction: Ed married five times, besides jumping into the sack with basically any girl he could charm into it--and charm he could. Women who slept with Ed Abbey constitute a sizable, although aging, female sub-population in the Southwestern United States, and Cahalan, a tireless researcher, seems to have talked with most of them. He also interviewed dozens of the many Friends of Ed still wandering around loose, each telling his well-worn tale.

The most daunting part of the research, though, must have been reading through the countless black-and-white bound journals Ed scrawled in through his life. About halfway through the book, the mountain of juicy braggadocio stored in UA Special Collections threatens to overwhelm a discouraged-sounding Cahalan, whose narrative begins to break down for pages at a time into repetitive accounts of stunningly bad behavior with a confusing cast of female walk-ons. (And some of the most embarrassing stuff isn't even there. Before he gave the first batch to the library in the spring of 1974, Ed sat at his desk in the trailer out at Aravaipa and ripped out page after page of "moaning over women," while the librarian who'd come to collect them--it must have been David Laird--watched helplessly.)

Finally, though, Clarke, Ed's last wife (and widow) shows up and puts a stop to his running around. Cahalan heaves an almost audible sigh of relief as his subject is transformed into a decent, if sickly, family man, good at last and situated in a pleasing domestic scene. I am here to testify that Clarke's taming of Ed was an unparalleled triumph of feminine will. She was the one right after me. In point of fact, as Cahalan establishes, there was an overlap of nearly a year in the two relationships, but that's a matter of purely private interest, like some misrepresentations by Ed about the early marriages, and the identities of a couple of the chicas in the wings during my time. I have never found the notes to any book so compelling.

Another problem with my reviewing the bio is that it's unreasonable for me to point out errors or criticize, since I declined to be interviewed. Ed, however, was militantly unreasonable, so why should I care?

For the record: Sierra Club banquet in Phoenix, not "a high school in Tucson"; December 30, 1973, not February 10, 1974; Dodge PowerWagon, not VW van; the Macraes visited in the spring of 1974, not 1973. Oh, and I strongly object to Cahalan's statement (on page 155) that I was "enamored of gourmet cooking." Appearing even in ghostly form in a cult figure's biography is unpleasant enough without being subjected to prose like that.

So, for me this was a gripping read, but will its intended audience--Abbey fans everywhere--rush to buy? Probably--at least once it goes into paper. The persona Ed constructed in his largely autobiographical work is so outrageous, so mocking and cartoonish, that inquiring minds have always wanted to know: What was he really like? How much, heh, heh, wooden-shoe business did Abbey really do, and where and when? Was he such a rat with women? What kind of man wrote Desert Solitaire?

Cahalan actually answers the last question fairly well, although he necessarily spends so much time sorting out the jobs and houses and girlfriends that he doesn't give the reader much sense of how Ed lived, day in, day out. It's only when Bowden talks about him, for example, that the bio acknowledges how deeply bookish Ed was--how much of his life he spent reading. In fact, when he was home, or on a lookout, most of his time was divided pretty consistently among three activities: reading, writing and walking.

Also, he drank huge quantities of tea to keep warm in his drafty houses, he re-read Montaigne and Burton when he felt sorry for himself, and he loved his stack of scratched recordings of sloppy late-Romantic music. (Mahler and Bruckner, for God's sake.) He both adored and despised domesticity. He was not, of course, either a racist or a misogynist--Cahalan's right. He was, as my mother once observed, quite fondly, "just a very old teenaged boy."

He was often very funny. He wasn't much interested in other people, which doomed him as a serious novelist. He always got his way.

That's what Ed was like. But the question any reader of a writer's biography most wants answered remains open, as it must. What compelled him to hurl so much of his fierce, impulsive energy into words and words and more words, and what happened, exactly, when he did his best work? How did he write Desert Solitaire? There's no explanation--he could and he did.

He was more alive than most people, he gave the world a book that will last, and now he's been dead for years. God bless him and keep him.