One Life at a Time, Please

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Edward Abbey has always been provocative. In his novel THE MONKEY WRENCH GANG, the characters plotted to blow up a dam. In DESERT SOLITAIRE, Abbey suggested that national parks should not necessarily be open to all. In ONE LIFE AT A TIME, PLEASE, Abbey takes on illegal immigration, the beef industry, overpopulation in his typical inflammatory style.

“Free Speech: The Cowboy and His Cow,” given to a University of Montana audience, attacks the livestock industry for abusing (with the government’s permission) public lands used as range. Abbey supports his views with facts, but his language deliberately aims to provoke: “Western cattlemen are nothing more than welfare parasites.” “Immigration and Liberal Taboos” calls for an end to industrial and population growth until the United States is able to solve its poverty, crime, and unemployment problems; part of Abbey’s solution is to stop all immigration, legal and illegal--halt “the mass influx of even more millions of hungry, ignorant, unskilled . . . people.”

In essays such as these, Abbey follows his own dictum that “the writer, the free-lance author, should be and must be a critic of the society in which he lives.” Another duty of the writer is to make people think. Abbey’s suggestions are often wild and completely impractical--to prevent overpopulation, “offer a brand-new Mustang convertible to every girl who consents to having her fallopian tubes tied in a Gordian knot"--but the reader’s horrified (and amused) reaction leads him to consider other solutions to problems that are no less severe for being overstated.

Other essays in ONE LIFE AT A TIME, PLEASE include travel journals, meditations on books and art, and an interview with Joseph Wood Krutch, but Abbey’s concern for the land and man’s relationship to it underlies virtually every essay. He is one of the nation’s premier nature writers, though he would probably abhor the title, and his message recalls that of Henry David Thoreau, another nature writer whose aim was more than descriptive: “Awake!”