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The Red Caddy, by Charles Bowen.

April 11, 2018

Red Caddy

The Red Caddy: Into the Unknown with Edward Abbey, by Charles Bowen.  University of Texas Press, 2018.


4 stars

Noted southwestern author’s tribute to his friend, the desert icon, Edward Abbey.

Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey, gave me and thousands of others raised in the 1950s a new way of thinking and being outside the national culture of consumerism and conformity.  From the first, Abbey had a cult celebrity for his rejection of so much we had been taught to hold dear.  He was an iconoclast, angry and bitter, anti-authority of all kinds, anti-capitalist and conventional definitions of success.  More of a hermit than a hippie. And yet his words had a rare beauty and resonance.  He helped me begin to find words to understand my own love of the solitude of the desert wilderness.

Charles Bowen was Abbey’s friend and shared many of his values.  Like Abbey, Bowen leaned toward anarchism and loved the solitude of the desert.  Bowen, however, was more willing to work within political and economic power structures than Abbey.  He was a journalist and has published numerous books often highly critical of the world we have created. As he points out, he runs his magazine and is even a member of the Chamber of Commerce.  I think of him as more of a muckraker than Abbey, but also grounded in the solitary wild desert.  The Red Caddy, named after Abbey’s red Cadillac convertible, is his reflection of his friend and his improbable popularity.

Bowen’s style is rambling and often disjointed.  He tells stories of both Abbey and himself.  Highly critical of many of Abbey’s devotees, he tries to explain why Abbey should not be treated as a “desert saint.”  He points out Abbey’s often intolerable racism and sexism. A long section of the book circles around what Bowen feels when participating in a panel about Abbey and his writing, frequently interpreted by various memories the panel invokes.

I find it hard to place Abbey and Bowen in the polarized world we live in today.  In some ways I see them in the space between those who love Trump and those of us who hate him.  They express the fierce anger that characterizes the contemporary right and the sensitivity and humanism more evident on the left.  We need more voices that refuse to be polarized today.

I recommend The Red Caddy to a wide spectrum of readers, especially those who have been touched by Abbey or the desert in the past.  Even more, Abbey’s Desert Solitaire is one of those books that should be read and savored by everyone.  My response to this book was to dig out my own worn-out copy of Abbey’s most important book.

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