Lit: Desert Solitaire

The following is a quasi-review of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. It is not meant to be a full analysis or synopsis of the book, but rather a glimpse into its character, voice, and my first impressions upon reading it.

How I stumbled upon this gem: a dear friend and this brainpickings article.

Abbey has a distinct voice. His prose varies from terse to gorgeously fluid, and he writes every sentence with conviction. He is unapologetic. Case in point:

“I get up and start back to the trailer. A smell of burning coffee in the wind. On the way I pass a large anthill, the domed city of the harvester ants. […] I cannot resist the impulse to shove my walking stick into the bowels of their hive and rowel things up. Don’t actually care for ants. Neurotic little pismires.”

Even with his obstinate opinions, Abbey illuminates what most would otherwise ignore or avoid: a gopher snake, sandstone bedrock, coyotes, afternoon heat.

The following are some favorite quotes and passages:

From the first paragraph of a chapter entitled Rocks: ¹

“The very names are lovely—chalcedony, carnelian, jasper, chrysoprase and agate. Onyx and sardonyx. Cryptocrystalline quartz-Quartzite. Flint, chert, and shard. Chrysoberyl, spodumene, garnet, zircon and malachite.”

From a chapter entitled Cowboys and Indians Part II, where he ponders petroglyphs: 

“Beware, traveler. You are approaching the land of the horned gods. . . .”

From a chapter entitled Down the River:

Wilderness. The word itself is music.”

From a chapter entitled The Dead Man at Grandview Point:

“I feel myself sinking into the landscape, fixed in place like a stone, like a tree, a small motionless shape of vague outline, desert-colored, and with the wings of imagination look down at myself through the eyes of the bird, watching a human figure that becomes smaller, smaller in the receding landscape as the bird rises into the evening — a man at a table near a twinkling campfire, surrounded by a rolling wasteland of stone and dune and sandstone monuments, the wasteland surrounded by dark canyons and the course of rivers and mountain ranges on a vast plateau stretching across Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, and beyond this plateau more deserts and greater mountains, the Rockies in dusk, the Sierra Nevadas shining in their late afternoon, and farther and farther yet, the darkened East, the gleaming Pacific, the curving margins of the great earth itself, and beyond earth that ultimate world of sun and stars whose bounds we cannot discover.”

Abbey tells tales right out of the heart of the West: harmonica songs sung ’round the campfire, herding cattle, the dazzling sculptures of the Moab, and so on. His writing isn’t sugar-coated with sappy phrases and gushing descriptions of juniper trees. He takes something of a scientific approach and attempts to translate the natural world into raw prose, strung together by fragmented sentences and acute observations.

(Spoiler: there is one passage where he sees a cottontail rabbit and decides to experiment on survival: he throws a stone at its head and kills it. Rather than with a prolonged sense of guilt, Abbey reacts with triumph — “No longer do I feel so isolated from the sparse and furtive life around me, a stranger from another world.”)

This book is tough to categorize. It isn’t really a memoir or a travel essay of any sort. Desert Solitaire is an experience. It details the journey, both physical and internal, of a man in search of something larger than himself. Something primitive, shy, powerful, crude, elegant, grand, or all.

¹ The first thought across my mind: Steven Universe.


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