Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Journey Home by Edward Abbey

The Journey Home

I just finished reading The Journey Home, a collection of 22 essays by Edward Abbey (author of the justly lauded Desert Solitaire) originally published in 1977. While Abbey and I are kindred spirits in lamenting the destruction and desecration of the natural world, the collection on the whole is only moderately satisfying.

Abbey is at his best when he combines his deeply personal recollections with a narrative thread. He accomplishes this best in "Hallelujah on the Bum" (retelling his hitchhiking and train-hopping trip from Pennsylvania to the West Coast and back in 1944), "Down the River with Major Powell" (an account of Abbey and two friends' trip down the Green River in Utah 101 years after John Wesley Powell made the first exploratory trip), and the second half of "Mountain Music" (in which Abbey recounts a climb to the knife-edged col between Mt. Wilson and Wilson Peak in Colorado). I also loved the three-page "Shadows from the Big Woods," but that's because it struck a particularly personal chord with me, but does not follow the "personal narrative" pattern of the other three excellent essays.

Slightly less effective are five other essays: "Disorder and Early Sorrow" (a very humorous recounting an ill-advised and ill-fated trip in a passenger car on an abandoned jeep track in Big Bend National Park in 1952), "Death Valley," "Manhattan Twilight, Hoboken Night" (written about the time Abbey spent in Hoboken, NJ, before the city became gentrified), "The Crooked Wood," and "Freedom and Wilderness."

Abbey stumbles in the remainder of the 13 contributions when he tries to be a naturalist and when he laments the loss of natural places. He's certainly spot on about his sentiments, but the essays come across as cynical and snide. Some are also outdated, especially "Return to Yosemite: Tree Fuzz vs. Freaks" and the longest contribution, "The Second Rape of the West" about strip mining for coal.

The book's only 239 pages long (in the hardcover edition I read) so it's not a major commitment. Plus, the great essays are gems to be savored.

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