Friday, August 28, 2015

The Monkey Wrench Gang, Doug Peacock, and me

The first reader to contribute an endorsement (a.k.a. "blurb") for my forthcoming novel, Consequence, was Scoop Nisker. Scoop was a radio news anchor on the Bay Area radio stations KSAN and KFOG as I was growing up, and often reported on the politiscape of Bay Area activism. The tag line with which he closed his reports became the title of his first book: If You Don't Like The News, Go Out and Make Some of Your Own. As an activist coming up in the 70s and 80s, that tag line became a kind of mantra to me.

Among other qualities ("exciting," "a great read"), Scoop found that Consequence was "reminiscent of The Monkey Wrench Gang," Edward Abbey's classic novel. Here's an excerpt from that book's description on Goodreads:
The story centers on Vietnam veteran George Washington Hayduke III, who returns to the desert to find his beloved canyons and rivers threatened by industrial development. On a rafting trip down the Colorado River, Hayduke joins forces with feminist saboteur Bonnie Abbzug, wilderness guide Seldom Seen Smith, and billboard torcher Doc Sarvis, M.D., and together they wander off to wage war on the big yellow machines, on dam builders and road builders and strip miners. [...] Moving from one improbable situation to the next, packing more adventure into the space of a few weeks than most real people do in a lifetime, the motley gang puts fear into the hearts of their enemies, laughing all the while.
I'll leave it to readers to decide how closely my novel echoes Abbey's. I will say, though, that Consequence isn't a comic novel, and its characters -- even the characters who monkeywrench -- are scaled much more closely to the sort of people you might know in real life than to George Washington Hayduke III, Abbey's grandiose, wildman protagonist. On the other hand, Scoop is on the mark: there's a prominent parallel-plot in Consequence that involves the kinds of things for which Hayduke is an iconic emblem: sabotaging diesel-burning forestry equipment, and ... how to say without revealing too much ... let's call them more ambitious acts of ecotage.

As it happens, Abbey's George Washington Hayduke III is based on a real-life person. And that real-life person is something of a wildman himself. His name is Doug Peacock, he's a writer and wilderness activist himself, and -- here's the twist -- he was a friend of my family during my teenage years.

Doug was a longtime friend of a fellow Ph.D. candidate in my dad's program at Stanford University in the early & mid-1970s, the late Jim Benson. Through Jim, Dad befriended Doug and contributed modestly to a film project Doug was working on then. Doug and Jim came by our house sometimes when Doug was in town, though mostly he was hanging out with grizzly bears in much wilder country than Palo Alto. This was maybe a year or two after The Monkey Wrench Gang was published.

In my family, Doug was famous for two things.

First, he had a rock-solid commitment to visiting grizzly country without carrying firearms to protect himself. It's their wilderness, not ours, he would insist, and he's still saying so (see Doug's Daily Beast post of this past Saturday, Do Killer Grizzlies Deserve Death?). Dad loved to repeat one of Doug's stories about getting treed by a grizzly, and being pretty far from certain whether he would live through the encounter. He nonetheless continued to visit the wilderness unarmed.

The second thing Doug was famous for in my family was spilling a glass of red wine on our best Danish modern couch (okay, it wasn't much, we got it secondhand, but it was the finest thing we had to sit on in our living room). What made that incident memorable was this: Doug (who was not the type to worry about social graces) got pretty flustered about making a mess of my mom's couch, but as he apologized profusely he also taught us an unexpected lesson: that pouring salt on the spill would leach the wine stain right out of her furniture. Mom was skeptical at first, but she let Doug talk her into dumping most of a container of Morton's finest over the spill. And it worked! Not a household hint you'd necessarily expect to learn from a wildman, but there you have it.

I was surprised at first to see Scoop Nisker compare Consequence to Edward Abbey's iconic environmentalist classic, but I have to admit there's a traceable line of influence. Go figure. Life hands you the strangest coincidences...

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
It's a book! CONSEQUENCE coming in October ...
Allusion in fiction
Mental floss

Thanks to Erwin and Peggy Bauer for releasing their photo of a grizzly bear into the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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