Creative Nonfiction

Sean Prentiss: What Does It Mean To Be a Man?

Author Sean Prentiss but in thousand sof miles making interview connections and visiting old Ed Abbey haunts while researching Finding Abbey.
Author Sean Prentiss put in thousands of miles making interview connections and visiting old Ed Abbey haunts while researching Finding Abbey.

It took me a while to warm up to Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave‘s thesis and its narrator, Sean Prentiss. I told myself I’d give it until page fifty, and that turned out to be plenty of time to get a handle on what Prentiss was up to.

I definitely finished–who wouldn’t want to find a hidden desert grave?

But let me back up a moment and say how this book came into my hands in the first place. My husband and I were on an extended Southwest road trip earlier this year and fetched up in Moab, Utah in the Back of the Beyond Bookstore. A friend, Susan Carkin, texted me at that moment to remind me I was in Abbey Country and to look for his ghost.

I bought a copy of Desert Solitaire and this book Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave, which actually turned out to be the more interesting of the two. (Ahem. At least, it is the one I finished.)

I knew who Ed Abbey was, of course, at least as a culture hero to the radical environmental left. I could have told you he was a writer who celebrated the Southwest landscape (Desert Solitaire) and an environmentalist who coined the term “monkeywrenching” (The Monkey Wrench Gang) for nonviolent sabotage against ecological exploiters, and whose efforts to organize the radical left inspired the formation of Earth First! It was his generation that tried and failed to save the flooding of Glen Canyon, the current Lake Powell–or Lake Foul, as Abbey and his cronies call it.

I’d tried reading his books before, but I just can’t seem to finish one. So Sean Prentiss did me a service in Finding Abbey by thoroughly filling me in on as much Abbey lore as I’ll ever need to know.

I must say Prentiss is the master of the compare/contrast paragraph. Using it as a literary device, he wants to associate himself with Abbey, so there are frequent pauses to underscore these perceived likenesses. Here is a short example:

“In his introduction to The Journey Home, Abbey called himself ‘one who lives and loves by choice far out on the very verge of things, on the edge of the abyss, where this world falls off into the depths of another.’ And that, too, seems where I best like to be. I’d rather camp alone at Sleeping Bear Dunes than go to some downtown bar. I’d rather build a cabin on a quiet mountain than own a house in the suburbs. Places feel most like home when they are closest to being beyond.”

“Abbey is like this; I am like that, too,” is a repeating paragraph structure in this book, and it isn’t a terrible way to keep an organizing principle on track, even if turns out in the end, not to be very true at all. The more I learned about each of the two men, the less convincing the comparison became. I came away with the impression of Abbey as an alcoholic womanizer, who had a gift for male bonding and who spent his writing life pushing back against the encroaching forces of civilization.

Kind of a jerk with something important to say, but not a guy I personally would have wanted to meet.

Prentiss, on the other hand, strikes me as a much more integrated and successful human being. He has a healthy sense of adventure, although he does really stupid things like hike in the desert, deliberately leaving water behind (60). What was that all about? Surely not machismo? Or misplaced Romanticism? It reminded me of the opening scene in Wild where Cheryl Strayed loses a hiking boot down a cliff. Born and raised within spittin’ distance of the Pacific Crest Trail, my siblings and I thought her too dumb to live, and none of us would read the book.

Having passed that oddity, I moved on to appreciate that Prentiss is a methodical writer (unlike Abbey, who seems unfocused, an emotional jumble), and, in spite of his efforts to identify with the dubious Abbey, is obviously a lot better adjusted to the 21st century than Abbey ever was to the 20th.

In my way of thinking, character is everything, and in the long run of this book, Prentiss, I think, inadvertently reveals himself to have a lot more character and a stronger moral compass than Abbey. But I get it that being around Abbey was like having a baby, a dog, or a wild animal in the room: nobody could take their eyes off him because they never knew what he was going to do or say next.

On my mental bookshelf, Finding Abbey goes right beside Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran because both authors so closely juxtapose a text and an author to their own quotidian life. I’ll say this for Prentiss–he never takes his eye off the wild animal in the room.

However, on the way to finding both Abbey and his grave, Prentiss does a lot of good mental wandering and wondering about the mythos of the American West, as well as the value of mystery, the value of a journey, and the value of a home. Prentiss muses, “I need to think of success not as finding this grave or even finding the answer but as searching for answers even if I never come to any singular conclusion. I have to believe that there might never be a final answer….Having a crazy idea, a wild idea, and then journeying toward that idea–that is home” (211).

And it is this journey, the searching for the grave, for Abbey’s ghost, for the West, for personal answers to questions of loneliness and the imperative to work for a living instead of spending a life wandering in the wilderness that provides the forward momentum of the book.

The object of this mystery adventure is to find Abbey’s hidden desert grave, and the quadrants are anchored with four outstanding interviews with Abbey’s closest friends: Jack Loeffler (Adventures with Ed), David Petersen (On the Wild Edge: In Search of a Natural Life), Ken Sleight (“The Original Monkey Wrencher”), and Doug Peacock (Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness). Each of the men is a force to be reckoned with in his own right.

Okay, I will admit to some freefloating uneasiness that came and went in this book, specifically around issues of alcoholism and racism.

Abbey (1929-1989) and all his buddies were, in my humble opinion, victims of 1950s-60s advertising. They appear to have been walking beer can ads, men who saw and instantly believed in the Marlboro man, as well. I think we can safely stir John Wayne and other nail chewing Western movie tropes into the mix. In spite of their proven tough-guy environmental ecotage consciences, not one seems to have had the self-awareness to peel back the myth of MAN AS DRINKER.

To be hypermasculine, they seemed to need alcohol and lots of it.

I’m sorry to say that Prentiss seems to want to add his name to the rosters of “I am Man, watch me drink!” However, his efforts to show that he is a hard drinker “just like Abbey” just seem sad and so last century.

In the context of this book, Prentiss regals us with his beer brands of choice; primarily Miller Lite. Were there NO microbrews marketing decent beer nationally circa 2010? Of course he could get good beer anywhere–why Miller Lite?

ProfPrentiss
Miller Lite is not my idea of a masculinity marker; maybe a class marker of some sort but out of sync with Prentiss’s portrayal of himself as a temporarily loose cannon professor looking for a home. (Image: Luke Hotwagner)

Another source of uneasiness and no doubt a major reason why Abbey’s cult following has waned over the last double decade is his clearly racist attitudes toward all immigrants and Mexicans specifically. Prentiss quotes Abbey in his book The Journey Home as muttering about the “sullen and hostile Indians, all on welfare” (50). In One Life At a Time, Please, Abbey said, “It might be wise for us as American citizens to consider calling a halt to the mass influx of even more millions of hungry, ignorant, unskilled, and culturally-morally-genetically impoverished people” (50).

Prentiss handles this topic with kid gloves, and much more deftly than he does Abbey’s alcoholism because he is being more careful not to associate himself with it. He quotes Abbey, sets the quotes best he can in context and while not excusing or explaining away, tries to show that “Abbey’s view of land was …lacking in complexity. He wanted land fenced off, untouched by humans” (50), including excluding Indians and Mexicans. Abbey’s concern was the land, and he decried all sources of overpopulation and defilement, including both natives and immigrants. Abbey wanted a wall along the border, which is not the quickest way to attract new young readers.

Prentiss circles back around to this topic at the end of the book when he and his buddy Haus are wandering around the Cabeza Prieta Desert actually looking for Abbey’s grave. They come across evidence of illegal Mexican immigrants, who would have had to cross forty or fifty miles of desert on foot. Haus says, “Think of the people who make this trip from Mexico. And it’s not just smugglers or narco-mules or twenty-five-year-old men who do this trip. It’s fifty-year-old women….Teen mothers with children in their arms. Too often environmental literature distorts the true heroes of these landscapes. It’s not men on backpacking trips” (183).

Do Prentiss and Haus actually find Abbey’s grave? I am not one to ruin the mystery.

This is not a book that includes women, but I don’t have a problem with that. It’s about what it means to be a certain kind of human. Abbey is one, but his four famous friends–Peacock, Loeffler, Sleight, and Petersen– each have their own twist on what it means to be a male of that generation in that activist culture, too.  Prentiss’s interviews showcase each of the four strong personalities who have gone about the business of becoming more themselves in different ways. I think the loss of the Glen Canyon fight threw a shadow over all their lives, making them both more ironic and more bitter (it would me, anyway). They are all more similar to Abbey and to each other being old school desert rats and radicals than to the quieter and more scholarly Sean Prentiss.

Prentiss put his rugged he-man time into the Southwest, but he is firmly and clearly a man of the 21st century.
Prentiss put his rugged he-man time into the Southwest, but he is firmly and clearly a man of the 21st century. (Image: Tim Calkins)

Prentiss knows enough to honor his elders, and this book is that homage. But, in the end, he meets the right woman, gets the right job, and settles down to root himself to a piece of Vermont real estate. Nothing like Abbey at all.

But for God’s sake, could someone pass him a decent beer?

A short video of Sean Prentiss talking about his book Finding Abbey. This video was produced by Backcountry Experience in Durango, Colorado in May 2015.

About the author

Sandy Brown Jensen

All my life, the ultimate vacation was unstructured reading time. It was absolutely the best part of being a kid. I am now a newly retired college writing teacher, and suddenly I have long, luxurious afternoons to do nothing but read. The name of this website, “Books my Friends have Written” came to me in a dream, although I write about any book I want to. I am also an arts reviewer on KLCC, NPR for Oregonians.

4 Comments

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  • Having read quite a bit of Abbey’s writing, back when I lived in Texas, on the eastern edge of the great western deserts, I see I’m going to have to locate a copy of Prentiss’s book for a look at another side of the man.

    In tandem with Abbey’s work, I read Marc Reisner’s “Cadillac Desert”, which gives a more scholarly view of the water wars of Abbey’s “Down the River”. Together, they paint a maddening picture of the federal bureaucracy of that time. Glen Canyon was a travesty, a victim of a power struggle between the Bureau of Reclamation and Corps of Engineers to see who could build the biggest dams. Thank God they were stopped before they dammed the Grand Canyon.

    • Thanks John and yes, I have read Cadillac Desert. It is no wonder that battle against Glen Canyon gave birth to Earth First! And brought a whole generation of environmentalalists to their knees…

  • When I read Abbey many years ago I was enthralled with the descriptions of time alone with the natural world and curious how through reading his writing about rattle snakes I could overcome my fear and aversion enough to hold a snake…not a rattler, but still, a snake. I don’t remember anything about beer or women.

    I love hearing how you read, what you notice!

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