Tuesday, April 17, 2012


A Review of Edward Abbey’s The Fool’s Progress: An Honest Novel, Henry Holt & Co., New York, 1988 [Avon Books edition, 1990].

What do we want most to dwell near to?
Thoreau, “Solitude”

Not everyone wants or needs the same things, even though corporations would find their lives [sic] much simpler if we did.

The fact is we all want something particular to ourselves, as we alone experience our lives from beneath our skin. Our desires might take the forms of fingerprints for our souls if the opportunity then ability to produce such intended content were common, but it isn’t. Being free, however, gives one the right to find that out for one’s self by trying.

Only rarely, in certain works of art, do we humans find anything at all resembling the complex, peculiar beauty of a singular human life lived and experienced as in Edward Abbey’s The Fool’s Progress: An Honest Novel—a fictionalized autobiographical fingerprint of the man’s “soul;” whatever that actually is, it will live on for as long as there are readers feral enough to experience it.

Abbey’s novel puts us through the mincing of a much ignored American-type male, the last generation of a self-reliant breed of lower class homo macho Americanus not mythologized by the likes of “John Wayne,” “Dan’l Boone” & “Davey Crocket.” Abbey’s Henry Lightcap ain’t none of those guys, but the real deal without any pink slime injected for mass consumption by obese, useless proles accustomed to wallowing in their own psychic hamburger of mythical shit, those “fat guys in distress” Henry would save from time-to-time in the non-myth wilderness of the Desert Southwest [Abbey almost had me there, being a fat slob and all myself]. Henry was an erudite mountaineer who loved life almost to idiocy, thus the “fool” of the title and that most confounding of all Americans—the wise redneck.

The whole country’s become a giant CAFO, a hootenanny for the moneychangers. Before there were too many people, you could take to the hills and make your own life…you could “go west,” “go home” or just go. Now we live in an eco-hell eerily akin to that eternal Christian heaven where our eyes are glued open to God and we’re permanently awake or plugged in, permanently producing and consuming profitable holograms, except in our case it ain’t eternal cause we’re slowly killed off as we lose our ability to consume efficiently. When one can no longer eat, one becomes irrelevant. It’s as Henry the narrator waxes romantic early on about the ability to escape “20th century man”: “A world without open country would be a universal jail.” [105] A man needs to learn his limitations for himself. They’re one of those sets of things that can’t be taught. He needs to be able to close his eyes once in a while to the limits others might place upon him, and just go.


And eventually, being mortal, he wears out, slows down, grows sick and dies, perhaps without ever realizing it, while heading home, and then just keeps going. The cop who questions Henry at the end, the fact that he’s kind [and so is everyone else after that, giving him food and drink, willingly sustaining him] suggests that Henry and his dog died beside the flooding creek, or maybe even inside their truck, but didn’t know it. A different level of consciousness begins projecting the text’s reality that keeps it moving forward on its inertia, as if death itself were not an equal and/or opposite reaction to its desire to dwell nearest to home, the Earth itself, an ideal that Henry always wanted and managed to heroically live up to.

This novel is shamelessly sentimental, but so beautiful and seamless that the sentimentality is a necessary device in the very nature and process—the autopoietic unfolding—of Abbey’s text, which serves as a distraction from our inadequacies that is the essential spiritual spark to the human imagination—that which is essential to human being. And with that sentimentality comes a sharpened sword against the corporate machine, that which would deny everything that the novel, that Henry Lightcap, that Edward Abbey does.

Henry sees it clearly, crossing America with his dying dog in his dying truck with terminal pancreatic cancer consuming him from the inside out, each being tinkered with in their own way just to keep going, just wanting to see home, knowing full well:
"…the America of my boyhood and youth it’s been blasted, obliterated, buried beneath the new America of black gummy asphalt and tinted glass and brushed sleek cool aluminum. What Edmund Wilson called, with prescient despair, 'The United States of Hiroshima.'” [211]

Even so, Henry Lightcap [Abbey] still feels smitten with existence: “[wanting] to weep. Not for sorrow, not for joy, but for the incomprehensible wonder of our brief lives beneath the oceanic sky.” [301] Henry seemed to view the human world as a distracted distraction, something to be dealt with and seldom enjoyed, and when it is enjoyed it always ends in sorrow as the fiddler must be paid. The cost of such complexities was not worth the profit made, at least not to Henry, for whom the word “Mountain…the simple easy bi-syllabic denotative, sen[t] a little pang of nostalgia through [his] central nervous system: homesick—[he was] sick for home.” [344]

What’s particularly heartbreaking, heroic, romantic and ultimately cathartic about The Fool’s Progress is how terribly long it actually takes to die because we want to live so much. And what’s outrageous is how corporate America helps death along with every step we [ie: Henry] take, killing us off one-by-one, step-by-step as the business of American business grinds on and on and on, etc. Death by corporation is slow.

The truck’s demise, the dog’s collapse, Henry’s altered projection, each is its own tragedy as each struggles heroically, to put things mildly. The tragedy of the truck’s death [as a literary device its dimensions were those of a word-being, so I include it as a character and thus capable of “dying”] is the end of tinkerability. The dog’s tragedy is the casualty of companionship. Henry’s death seems the death of an American aspect worth loving, something to be patriotic over [as opposed to nationalistic or greedy about]. How many Americans are left who are self-reliant like Henry, and how many of those can discuss Heidegger and Nietzsche? How many 50-year-olds will you hear honestly declaim: “I don’t believe in doing work I don’t want to do in order to live the way I don’t want to live.” [17] It seems with every generation they comprise an ever smaller portion of the population.

In Gender, the questionable Ivan Illich writes: "An industrial society cannot exist unless it imposes certain unisex assumptions: the assumptions that both sexes are made for the same work, perceive the same reality, and have, with some minor cosmetic variations, the same needs." [9]

Such a program proves fatal to much of the American way of life. Americans of the Tea Party stripe recognize this, but can’t put their finger on it. They don’t even know who Nietzsche and Heidegger are, and can’t or won’t imagine they’re being horn swogled. They want to live like their parents did, but the world won’t let them. In fact, the world says their parents lived bad lives. They have more in common with the people they kill overseas than the folks who command them, but they can’t see it.

When they were kids, growing up didn’t seem so much an “economic” process as a spiritual one where a person would become responsible for their behaviors which were then incorporated into their livelihoods or the way they did business. Now, adulthood is merely “I owe, I owe, so off to work I go.” Only wage slaves need apply.

According to these corporatus americani, those of us who aren’t rich are broke because we’re inferior. But in Henry Lightcap’s case, at least he was self-reliant. He not only accepted personal responsibility, he was addicted to it. He couldn’t have shook it if he wanted to. Henry had his weaknesses…they were legion, and they were glorious.

Too much of our daily lives has been stripped of dignity and depth. Way back in 1975 Henry, on a visit home to West Virginia, noticed things were getting crowded around the old homestead. His older brother, Will, asked Henry what he was hopeful about, and Henry said, “A fast, efficient and painless plague. Desertification…I don’t know, Will. But something better happen soon.”

It didn’t. It hasn’t. It won’t. But when something akin to that does happen, it will be very painful, and pain’s something Henry knew all about. He understood that changing human nature meant mutilating human beings. He also knew that the America of the 1980s, and even more so the America today, was doing just that: attempting to change human nature so it would fit neatly into a proper set of target markets. Henry resisted this with everything he had. He was only one man, however, so:

"Henry felt that by contributing nothing to the annual Gross National Product he was thereby subtracting even less from what was left of the Net National Heritage. He himself would carry out a private one-man revolution in the belly of the beast. Freedom begins between the ears. The Good Life starts where servitude ends. In a nation of sheep one brave man is a majority…

"Theory. There was a flaw in the program. The program did not appeal to women, especially married women, especially those married women married to Henry Lightcap." [329-30]

My theory: Art like life will kill you, but until it does it will only make you stronger. Henry Lightcap was one of those rare philosophers for whom words meant something. Like Thoreau, he lived alone [with his dog] by his words, and died alone [with his dog] by them too.

But he wasn’t lonely, just solitaire.


Illich, Ivan. Gender, Heydey Books, Berkeley, CA, 1982.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, Quality Paperback Book Club, 1997.

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