My favorite Robert Crumb book adaptation does not quite exist. Years ago, he made illustrations for Ed Abbey’s masterpiece novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. Unlike his recent Genesis, The Monkey Wrench Gang is not fully illustrated. There are spot illustrations punctuating the text.
Google has most of the book online, incredibly, so you can check out all of Crumb’s illustrations on your own. I’ve collected a few favorites here, though, so I can have something to blog about today.
The plot of The Monkey Wrench Gang is pretty zany. A group of good folks commit acts that corporate America would call vandalism but that those of us who happen to like the out-of-doors would call preservation. Preservation of land that has gotten uglied up by billboards, roads, power lines: all the usual detritus of man. Their master plan, never enacted but often spoken of longingly, is to blow up the Glen Canyon dam, that concrete boogeyman straddling the Utah/Arizona border. The Monkey-Wrenchers consider it their patriotic duty to preserve the beauty of the American West.
Abbey loved the West. A transplant (like most people living in western states today), he saw the unprecedented growth that was going on and instinctively recoiled. Growth is not a bad thing in and of itself, but unchecked growth is a cancer. Abbey noted the difference and fought against the malignant development that continues to happen long after his untimely death.
Of course The Monkey Wrench Gang is not meant to be a primer on waging a war against evil developers. It is a comic novel with environmental themes. It’s a bit of fantasy many of us would never dream of fulfilling in real life. Who among us hasn’t driven by a development of multi-million dollar homes scarring the foothills of a mountain or gutting what was once forest or prairie and thought, “wouldn’t it be great if they just burned to the ground?”
We would not do such a thing. In fact, this blog is against violence of any kind, be it to humans, animals, plants, or evil land developers. But just as I would never consider putting a giant crack in the Glen Canyon dam, I abhor those people who consider land unbuilt-upon as land wasted. I’d rather write my Congressman to have that bastard dam dismantled. (Or better yet, blog about it.)
One of the best recurring jokes in the book happens whenever Seldom-Seen Smith crosses over the Glen Canyon dam. A lapsed Mormon, he nevertheless kneels down to pray. He prays that God will send a bolt of lightning to crack the dam in half.
Crumb’s illustrations are perfect because The Monkey Wrench Gang is written in such a cartoony way to begin with. I’ve often thought it would make a great animated movie. Somehow watching real people act out the events in the book wouldn’t do justice to its slapstick momentum. Cartoons are clearly the best way to go.
As it is, having Crumb’s drawings in this edition of the book makes it feel more complete.