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The Fool's Progress: An Honest Novel (1989)

by Edward Abbey

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603537,595 (4.16)4
When his third wife abandons him in Tucson, boozing, misanthropic anarchist Henry Holyoak Lightcap shoots his refrigerator and sets off in a battered pick-up truck for his ancestral home in West Virginia. Accompanied only by his dying dog and his memories, the irascible warhorse (a stand-in for the "real" Abbey) begins a bizarre cross-country odyssey--determined to make peace with his past--and to wage one last war against the ravages of "progress."… (more)

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Fantastic book and the best Abbey I have read. It's ambitious but lives up to its title ("An Honest Novel) and its hits all of its marks. Tragic, hilarious and in the end touching (because you care about the curmudgeonly Abbey much like you would for a crazy alcoholic uncle). ( )
  jonbrammer | Jul 1, 2023 |
Review of Edward Abby's The Fool's Progress
[paragraphs in italics are snippets from the book]

Warning: Edward Abby's writing, and possibly my take of it, may anger some. There are some bits of the story where even my annoyance flared. Understandable, being our species is saddled with the Achilles heel of subjective perception, inherited in our evolution.

Nevertheless, this is an exceptional literary accomplishment ranking up there with the best I've read, and the best of Edward Abby's writing. It is a story of intermingled journeys, one a coming of age, one a flight from an age, and one of coming home — the journeys also evocative travelogues replete with our repeating history. The story is at once full of hope and heartbreak, anger and empathy, excess and prudence, pride and shame, innocence and understanding — in short a depiction of real life. His writing ranging from humorous to sorrowful to infuriating, but ever illuminating and sobering. What more could a reader ask for? I had to stop reading at times, especially in the ending scenes.

What may grate on some, if they recognize it, is that the gist of the story is Abby showing us through Henry Lightcap and other characters what hubristic, genetically manipulated, hormone controlled beings we are — not all bad nor all good in our tortured souls. Abby is self-admittedly flawed, but even so is a much needed iconoclast, crying out as we hasten our pace to the abyss.

There is no pain, Camus said, which cannot be surmounted by scorn.

Like my review, the story seems to ramble on in places, but there is a stratagem to the conveyance, complete with nuances, that brings it alive with meaning. It's a story that accumulates over the chapters of occurrences and recalls, like viewing Henry Lightcap's life through a prism of influences. Single chapters are but components, and with their intensity can be distracting. One engrossing chapter starts out with the lead-up to a bedroom scene (distracting for the moment from how Henry got there), segues abruptly to a meeting with his thesis committee about the preparation of his master’s thesis (and you maybe thought Robert M. Pirsig got carried away) and concludes with a house warming in every sense.

What he really wanted, perhaps, was to ride a horse through the primeval forest while composing poetry—a verse in the wilderness!—or guide timid but willing young lady tourists up mountain trails toward the giddy summit of their mutual desires.

“The important thing, I think,” said Henry, “is to avoid succumbing to cynicism—to that weary resignation which passes, in the decadent West, for wisdom and wit.”

Consummate writing skill I believe, I enjoyed his frank in-your-face style laced with nuances, thinking I understand what in good part lies behind his rants and satire, and his reluctance to participate in the status quo quagmire. We tell ourselves we're an intelligent species (the irony of the Homo sapiens label we adopted), despite our actions evidencing otherwise, digging our grave ever deeper at an accelerating pace. The crux of his disagreeable tangents also evidenced in how some readers, loath to contemplate our true proclivities, take offense at his varying broadsides — balanced in my view allowing himself to often enough be the brunt. I see it as him parodying shared human attributes, indeed of many species as we're all connected. Could he be right in us being the only species that contemplates our mortality and reacts with instinctive ignorance — I'm not convinced of the former. I do know that Nature isn't concerned with our human viewpoint of oft misapplied right and wrong, steadfastly moving on with the continuum of physical life in transitioning new life forms to balance changing environments. All species alter their habitat to degrees, for good and bad as seen from our human bubble viewpoint, but none so far beyond our weedy species that I know of have altered the course of physical life so quickly and completely.

My views, of course, influenced by a naturalist's perspective. One that understands the distaste of human anthills, one more in line with a reverence of natural world balance for the benefit of all, not any one individual, one that believes the hell part of it all could be mitigated with more wisdom and respectful coexistence. Does eating with a knife and fork distinguish us from the ignorance of primal savageness? Viewing Abby's writing as at times a naturalist's Saturday Night Live with nuances to spare, the reader may broaden their perspective. It can't hurt to blend a bit more illuminating reality with our head-between-our-legs, zombie, shoot-em-up, and what-have-you entertainment reading :-)

“Your criticism is greatly appreciated,” says my Uncle Jack’s business card, “but fuck you all the same.” He deals in fertilizer.

I know, when a man’s best friend is his dog that man needs help—professional help. I understand that and I acknowledge it and I say to hell with it.

Jesus loves me, that I know,
’Cause the billboards tell me so.

[re: Henry's older brother overseas during WW II]
“But”—Paw would continue, ruining the effect, spoiling his case with his patient neighbors—“Will and those boys should be going to Wall Street, New York, and that Washington, D.C., not to Europe. That’s where our real enemies are.”

Some insightful tidbits that struck me earlier on, leaving out hilarious passages that were too long to include and/or might reveal too much.

Back on the road, after a perceptive description of the the Painted Desert (Navajo country) Henry drops in on an ailing old friend.

“Henry,” he says, “what’s the most horrible thing that could happen to a man?”
“I don’t know. A night in bed with Margaret Thatcher?”

Later in the visit, when Henry asks where the word Indian for Native Americans might have originated, his friend answers with a tidbit of history our colonist culture turns a blind eye to.

“Los gentes in Dios,” Don repeats. “And that’s what Columbus wrote in a letter to Ferdinand and Isabella. In the next paragraph he offered to bring their majesties a shipload of ‘inDios’ as servants and playthings. ‘They have few and simple weapons,’ he wrote, ‘and conduct warfare only as a game.’ With a handful of men, he said, meaning Spaniards not inDios, he could easily enslave the whole population of the Caribbean and put them to useful work, like mining gold and silver.”
Jenny says, “I always wondered if that name Colón [Cristóbal Colón, Spanish for Christopher Columbus] doesn’t have a close connection to asshole.”

Ah yes, and have we really changed? Judge for yourself in all the news that isn't news.

I open the newspaper. Routine frontpage stuff: the perpetual Mideast crisis, some movie actor running for the U.S. presidency, more murder and massacre in Afghanistan, Guatemala, Cambodia, Chile, El Salvador, etc.—same old ancient news. I turn to the inside pages, the human interest material: “Man Knifed on South Bean St.”…“Mother Convicted of Drowning Deformed Baby; Right-to-Lifers Demand Death Penalty”…“Man Riddles Giant Saguaro with Shotgun Blast, Is Fatally Injured When 5-Ton Cactus Falls on Him”…
There is a God.
I read on. “Chief Engineer on Dam Project Killed by Lightning; Same Storm Washes Out Coffer Dam”…
And a Just God he is.”

Back on the road again, Henry reflects on other tidbits of history.

North of town I see a pair of small hills: Rabbit Ear Mountain, the early travelers called it, the first topographic feature to meet their eyes as they left Oklahoma headed west toward Santa Fe. Josiah Gregg stopped here for a drink (of water), losing his pistol as he leaned over the horse trough. An unlucky fellow, that Gregg—the Ichabod Klutz of frontier America. Not far east of here he was once pursued by a wildfire for ten miles across the plain. The fire began at his morning camp, making Gregg the only man in American history to be chased by his own campfire.

We stop for a while, a piss for me, a bowl of water for my dog, at a place named Cow Creek. Coronado also paused here, in 1541, before giving up his search for the Seven Golden Cities of Cíbola and turning back toward Texas, New Spain and Old Mexico. Coronado recognized the potential of the Kansas plains, a region, he said, “capable of producing all the products of Spain.” He had his mounted soldiers with him, baking in their tin suits, and a priest named Juan de Padilla. Padilla returned to Cow Creek—then known as Quivira—a year later to christianize the Indians. As if they weren’t dangerous enough already.

Love his wit :-) Think about the nuances and you will find many insights.

Henry had a sick imagination, obsessed with history. Aloft in his tower too long he’d been reading too much Gibbon, Mommsen, Acton, Toynbee, Becker, Wells, Braudel, Prescott, Beard, Wittfogel…. Torture, massacre, slavery, peonage and serfdom, rank and caste and hierarchy, the nightmare unfolding for five six seven thousand years or ever since the first Pharaoh hissed, uncoiled and rose like a hooded cobra from the slime of the Nile and our hydraulic tyranny began its self-perpetuating growth.

Each particle indeterminate and unpredictable but the aggregate bound tighter than a bull’s asshole in flytime to the iron laws of probability. As Henry would have phrased it, composing his footnote to Plato

Scattered amongst all this are the wisdoms of practical folks.

Will and Marian had their first child eight months after the wedding, the second two years later. That was enough, even though Marian was a Roman Catholic. The Pope may be infallible, she explained, but he’s never around to help pay the bills.

Maybe Abby spends a little too much time exemplifying our hormonal proclivities (Henry Lightcap was a randy old goat), but not out of proportion with reality. Henry has a lust for life, seen through subjective romantic delusions. And how are we essentially any different?

Those mountains. That river. That land and his friends and this absurd garment of irritation, aspiration, intuition, irrational reason, inconsolable memories that he wore as symbol of life. Death would be better, sweeter, simpler. But death like anybody else must wait his turn.

If you chose to, I hope you read this book with an open mind, and find much of value in it. ( )
  LGCullens | Jun 1, 2021 |
I cried at the end of this book. ( )
  zappbabbit | Jan 30, 2019 |
Heartbreakingly sad/funny/ironic/angry/touching. ( )
  lcrouch | Apr 14, 2006 |
Of interest to me: Edward Abbey used to quietly visit Jerome, AZ.
1 vote | MarieTea | May 29, 2012 |
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When his third wife abandons him in Tucson, boozing, misanthropic anarchist Henry Holyoak Lightcap shoots his refrigerator and sets off in a battered pick-up truck for his ancestral home in West Virginia. Accompanied only by his dying dog and his memories, the irascible warhorse (a stand-in for the "real" Abbey) begins a bizarre cross-country odyssey--determined to make peace with his past--and to wage one last war against the ravages of "progress."

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