The Red Caddy

The first biography of Edward Abbey in a generation is closer to a memoir about friendship between two crusty desert rats.

Charles Bowden | The Red Caddy | University of Texas Press | April 2018 | 19 minutes (5,099 words)

I don’t bring a lot to the table. I knew him, we were friends and we had a lot of good talk. But there were no big moments, dra­matic events, or secret missions. There is no cache of letters. I’d pretty much pitch those as they came in. I was trained up as a historian but apparently the training never took. I am by nature a person who takes things as they come and that is how I took him. The only thing special about him to me was our friendship, since I don’t make friends with everyone I meet.

Now I run into people who are struck that I knew him and I always tell them it was not a very hard thing to do. He was rea­sonably polite, didn’t shit on the floor, and was well read. This last point mattered to me since I devour books, and like most such wretches love to talk about what I have read and even better argue about it. He had a similar pathology. I admired what he wrote and by and large agreed with it — not just philo­sophically, but viscerally. I suspect I was born already knowing a lot of what is in his books, it seems to come with a certain ornery cracker territory as part of the blood. So, naturally, we never wasted time on such commonplaces but talked about other things.

I have never kept a diary or journal. I really don’t keep any­thing but memories. So, I cannot dip into the awesome details of some day or night. This is okay because nothing was really awesome anyway. That kind of significance seems to be cus­tomarily applied to death like gilt. At least, that is the sense I get from listening to people talk about him and reading what they write about him. I do not share the feeling. I think this translation into desert sage, Western god, or whatever is a diminishment of both him and his words. He was a man born to strangle gurus with their own entrails and everything he ever thought or did is pointless if he is suddenly indispens­able and irreplaceable. There is a lot of cheap talk nowadays that uses strange, ugly-sounding words like “empowerment,” as if power can be given to someone. He didn’t think that. He thought we could all take power and be free, and spent a lot of time writing essays and novels explaining just how to do such a thing. In a real sense if he did his job right someday we’ll stop reading him because we will have taken him at his word and broken out of our industrial cage and moved on to dangerous and liberating ground. I would love to live in a nation where no one read him because everyone already knew what he had to say and had acted on it. Things are looking up, but I think it’ll still be a while before I get my wish.

There is a clutter to life that ideas can never tolerate or make go away. To unravel something, you have to have a thesis. But to understand the dead ends, back alleys, and side roads of life itself, you have to mistrust your thesis and constantly keep an eye on it lest it blind you to detail, contradiction, lust, love, and loneliness. I can’t write about a friend and make it neat and tidy unless I intend to kill my friend. And this is not my inten­tion. To be an expert on someone you know, I truly believe, is never to have known them at all. Which is why we assign such work to scholars. We say they will be objective, while we ourselves cannot promise such a feat. But we also think they can be certain, while we cannot comprehend such a fantasy. To really know someone, to break bread with them and talk and drink and laugh and argue, is much like knowing an eco­system. You can get the drift, draw a map, know many trails, but the more you know the more convinced you become that absolute knowing is impossible.

I am not trying to make life or a life mystifying. I am just not willing to lie about the vast reefs and grottos that lurk beneath the waters, the geography of the deep that we can never see and concerning which we seldom receive reports. Once in a great while a whale is beached and at dawn as the light comes on we all rush to the shore, clamber about the leviathan and for the briefest moment convince ourselves we now have a sense of the life that transpires in the great depths where light never penetrates. We touch the hoary skin of the beast and examine with silent horror the strange scars that rake the body. We imagine the power hidden in the torso and stare into the great eyes, each the size of a hubcap, and think we can catch a last flicker of what they saw and of the torrent of life that poured through the big lens into the hidden life of the mind now locked within the colossal skull.

It is late afternoon, the light has gone from white toward gold and the fresh coolness of fall grows stronger each day. He is coming up the sidewalk to the library, the gait slow but not clumsy. There is no need for speed, and his limbs swing with fluid grace. The eyes are clear, and a faint smile rides easy on the face. We sit on a ledge near a statue of some nymph. His shirt is worn but the tears are neatly stitched and the jeans look pressed. The vest completes the costume. He waves a sheaf of papers at me, the manuscript of a book, or what I think is a book, that I have just scribbled. It’s publishable, he says, I’ll help you find a publisher. You think so?

Yes. We are in a strange geography, the place not yet fixed on any map — the imaginary world created by words on paper. But we do not talk about this. To talk too much is a taboo and we both know this fact, it is something we will never discuss. The existence of the taboo is a given, we are of the same cul­ture. To talk of these matters is to kill them and destroy what little magic is possible. We both know the killers will come soon enough. For both of us, writing is too important to merit discussion. We sit there for five or ten minutes talking softly as the light grows more and more golden. We are strangers with a third typewritten stranger between us. There is a limit to our knowing, even if we are friends, even if the book is now common knowledge between us. Screams, small cries, sighs, and shouts come off the heap of pages he holds and we can hear them faintly as we talk to each other, sitting on the ledge as college students float past. His eyes keep scanning coeds, his voice never rises. He gets out a pen, gives me names, and he says, call them or write them and use my name. I say thanks. He shrugs.

We both stand and go our separate ways. The ledge is a beach, and without a word or a look back we both enter our own waters and vanish beneath the waves. That is the know­ing we are always left with, and that is also, of course, the lack of knowing. It is why I cannot write with the certainty of the scholars or the critics or the various police agencies. It is also why I am able to write about a red Cadillac and have no doubt about the machine’s performance or the driver’s skills and quirks. Because I am not an expert, I am not the final authority, but I am a witness to the ride and I have felt the wind against my face on those good days when the top is down and life is up…

***

My hands are cold, the mornings are beginning to whisper winter and I’m thinking firewood, good books, and a drink in the hand as the flames leap and the coals fall glowing through the grate. There will be pork roasts, long nights, and skim ice at first light. Life’s a pretty good thing if you are willing to chew on it and swallow. I remember standing in a parking lot with him a week or two before he died and he ’s insisting on signing one of his books for me and I’m fighting the idea. I point out that his name is already printed on the title page, the book jacket, and the book spine but he dismisses my simple logic with an indifferent wave of his hand. The sun streams down as he bends over and scribbles some necessary bullshit in the book and then hands me a copy of The Fool’s Progress. Shit, I say, I already bought a copy. What am I supposed to do with this one? He shrugs with a kindly fuck-you expression and then drives off. The day he dies I pull the novel off the shelf and for the first time read his scrawl—“fellow traveler in this fool’s journey out of the dark, through the light, and into the unknown. . . .” Okay, I’ll take him at his word.

There is the matter of the plastic shrink wrap. It’s lying about a foot away as I write, covering a tidy rectangle of cardboard encasing a videotape. His face is glowering on the cover— what is this shit? I never saw him glower. More stancing, ass-hole?—and the title clangs out “a voice in the wilderness.” Well, la-de-dah. He looks like a rusty hatchet, he ’s got this western cowboy bonnet on his noggin, a red bandanna — Jesus Christ! Do you have no shame, man?—and his piercing eyes say I’m the one, bubba. Bullshit. Anyway, inside the box cow­ering under plastic wrap is a one-hour documentary that I have never watched. It’s been out six months, a year, I can’t remem­ber. I glance at the jacket copy—“a writer in the mold of Twain and Thoreau . . . a larger-than-life figure as big as the West itself.” What? I remember the day the crew of two arrived, shuffling into my hut with tripod and stout camera boxes. I was deranged then with a book about a savings and loan wizard and their descent was a bit of a jolt. They sniffed about my ruins and finally picked a location in the backyard where I slumped in a chair and the camera ate a big mesquite, some cactus and a dash of salvia and chuperosa. The director asked questions. I gave answers. And then they left.

A lot of my friends have seen the show and told me it is good. I liked the director and the camera guy. But I have never watched it. Never opened it, for that matter. It lies over there like a Pandora’s box — sorry, honey, I think we’ll just keep the lid on for the moment. I’ve got a good idea what is on the tape from the endless précis friends have offered up. I remember nothing that I said, but that is not a problem. I am used to see­ing myself on screens and conditioned to the ghastly image, so that is not it. True, I do not own a television or VCR but I know kindly folk who do, so that is not what is stopping me. But I cannot watch it. I’m not ready. I just thought you should know this fact. There is some unfinished business in my gut. You want objective, turn on the set. I do not know the country.

We’ll skip the fame game questions, like now that he’s dead just how does he measure up? They’re a waste of time since they eventually will answer themselves. He put out twenty books or so, they sold here and there and when he died Time magazine gave him an obit. On the other hand, I had a strange conversation a while back with a Washington columnist. He called me up all excited and told me he had his FBI file, the whole damn thing. I said that’s interesting, and allowed how I’d known the guy. He said, really? this is incredible, and went on and on about the weird coincidences possible in this best of all possible worlds. We rattled on for about twenty min­utes before I realized he was talking about Abbie Hoffman. I said, no, no, the other guy. What other guy, he asked? When I explained, it turned out he’d never heard of him. Well, that’s fame for you and a demonstration of the power and reach of Time magazine.

Still I run into strange-looking people from time to time who seem to memorize his words like scripture. I find this unsettling but harmless. There is even a calendar out that gives you a dose of his wisdom every day. A fellow once told me he was in a laundromat up in the plateau country with grimy backpackers and they were all hunched over reading him while their clothes twirled and soaked. The fame stuff, as I said, will take care of itself. The measuring for a literary winding sheet is best left to the trolls of the Academy who camp near the fabled canon and guard it with their lives and footnotes. In due time they’ll get the job done and crank out the appropriate texts like canned Spam. We’ll just have to wait until they reveal to us what he really meant and whether any of it was truly up to snuff.

In some way I can’t quite put my finger on, he’s not quite dead. Death is not as simple as the doctors like to make it out to be. I’m around people all the time who are clinically alive and yet actually dead.

Dreamers make the best drivers, always. They are not afraid of unknown routes, they do not complain about bumps in the road, and they like the feel of the machine roaring down the dark highways. They seldom if ever get lost because wherever they find themselves is part of what they were seeking.

Meanwhile, it’s drive time.

The chariot is a 1975 Cadillac Eldorado convertible, color red. He bought it for himself as his sixtieth birthday present. It had an old eight-track tape system and he was so thrilled by this device he raced out and bought a stack of old eight-tracks. But the tape player never worked. When a friend admired it, he told the guy he’d paid $4,500 for it. Not true. He’d plunked down six grand for this behemoth that got about eight miles to the gallon and needed a new rag top. Did it without warning, too — forgot to tell the wife, you know. Had to have it. I guess he felt a deep need for this veritable icon of greed, shallow taste and industrialism. Disgraced himself, once again. And then when a network news show wanted him to return to the haunts of one of his best-known books, why by God he showed up in this obscene automobile and by hook or by crook made the caddy a key character in his offhanded denunciation of the twentieth century and a lot of other stuff.

Let’s get in the caddy and cruise. Runs fine, so don’t worry, although the exhaust system is pretty loud. The trunk’s loaded with tools — nails, dynamite, sand, wire cutters, a .30-30

Model 94 and a fine set of monkey wrenches. The night’s fine, the tank’s full. Open the ice chest and crack a cold one. Let’s roll.

***

The wild bird store sells no wild birds. The blues stroke the air and hundreds of feeders for cardinals, hummingbirds, orioles, finches, squirrels, woodpeckers and other creatures dangle from racks. I am trying not to think. In an hour or two, I’m to be the moderator on a panel — fifth anniversary of his death. What did he used to claim? That the only birds he could iden­tify were fried chicken and the rosy-bottomed skinny dipper? An absolute lie, of course. I can remember walking along an arroyo with him one morning, the air cool under the trees, the sun warm on my face, and birds darting here and there in the brush as he ticked them off like a rosary. We weren’t carrying binoculars or guidebooks, we were not doing much of any­thing beyond ambling and talking and not talking — a morning kind of work. His head was kind of hunkered down as if he were considering the possibility of a big idea flashing across his mind, and he certainly looked the part with his full head of graying hair, his bristling Old Testament beard, a face that looked chiseled out of hard rock, keenly focused blue eyes, a good-sized nose riding ahead like an ax, and that low rumbling monotone of a voice. Basically, the crazed, lice-ridden, raving, pedestal-sitting anchorite sage from central casting with spittle on his lips and flames shooting out his mouth — until his lusty gaze alights on a pretty girl and the wicked bastard beckons for her to hop into his red Cadillac convertible. Not a pretty boy, but handsome is as handsome does.

The naming is a compulsive human act — we can name something, it exists and therefore we exist. I know I’m subject to this naming fetish. A tree doesn’t really exist to me until I can mumble out loud its species. People have to be filed in tidy groups, fascists or communists or Democrats or Republicans or suckers for the Le Leche league. In the beginning was the word and the word was. . . . None of us seems able to stop this labeling fetish, certainly not me. But I know this seeming necessity for our cortex is in some part a crime against truth and life itself. So I dread the program I am to moderate and the ceaseless naming that will ensue. People who knew him will be on the panel, and they’ll tell stories about him, or explain him or in some way name him. I hate this business and for the better part of the year have tried to get out of it. I anticipate the categories, claims, charges, churlish epithets all swirling around the room and seeping like poison gas into the lives of a couple hundred people who have come out for the show. What the hell did he say? Something like I am a humanist, I’d sooner kill a man than a snake?

***

Time to go. Out the door, in the glare and warp of midday heat rising from the concrete and asphalt floor of this edition of the living des­ert, through the brown air of dust and machine fumes, under the white sun torching through the atmosphere and licking our skin with love and leaving cancerous hickeys, somewhere out there the red caddy is at idle, anxious to go pedal-to-the-metal. The roof is down, the miles per gallon a disgrace, the seats soft, the ashtray generous, the factory air monstrous, the function unclear. Like love, the red caddy has its own reasons.

It is the car we all wish to drive. But of course, we all can’t. His car, you know. And ragtops, no matter how many airbags, seat belts, roll bars and insurance policies we freight them with, can never be made safe. Took out Isadora Duncan when her scarf got caught in the spokes of a wheel, decapitated Jayne Mansfield, sprayed John Kennedy’s brains all over his wife. Just when you start to relax they might haul off and hurt you. Can’t be sure of them until they go to the junkyard and even then it’s best to see them crushed into a tidy metal bale. Oth­erwise, there is always the possibility of an accident.

I drive toward the looming program down Speedway, the main drag of my town and a national whipping boy in the ugliness derby. For decades it has been the American touchstone for bad taste — Life magazine once touted it in a photograph as a world-class eyesore and since then the jackals of the media have returned to the street for its abundant carrion. I love Speedway down to its nice tacky name.

I try to create order in my mind for the looming program — gotta be serious. The event will be held in a very distinguished hotel before a very proper audience. I feel like I’m being asked to introduce a badass rap singer to a herd of seminary students. He said, “Liberty is life: eros plus anarchos equals bios.” He said, “If there is anyone here I’ve failed to insult, I apologize.” Of course, in the five years since he died, he’s cleaned up his act. No one talks much about a lot of things he said or why he said them. That’s why the panel discussion is going to take place: he is dead and since he is dead, he is safe. Somehow they’ve slipped a giant condom around his life’s work.

I park a half block from the hotel—always plan your escape route. And wander into the old pink building, a living fossil built by the heiress to a copper fortune around 1930 to provide genteel lodgings for genteel people in this Mexican hellhole of a town burning in this unspeakable desert. The grounds are neatly landscaped and everything hides behind big hedges. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor used to stay here when they were mooching in this part of the world. Howard Hughes booked a suite here for a couple decades but never showed up. The old building is like a maiden aunt. The food is fair to terrible, the rugs have a ratty feel but seem redeemed by that aura of high-class wear and tear. I like the bar, a deadly pub with scattered couches and huge Audubon prints from the old man’s work on quadrupeds, that unfinished poem he was painting before senility nailed his lively mind and lusty soul. As I enter this booze parlor it is as quiet as a church except for a low sound off to my side. I look over and see a friend of mine, a political bagman and real estate wheeler-dealer. He’s sitting at a table with a couple of suits and doubtless is engineering the murder of some new tract of desert in order to finance his recurring holidays on the coast. He pretends I do not exist. It is apparently not the moment to admit he knows my ilk.

I order a coffee and fall back into my dour mood. I feel some kind of…guilt? sin? I can’t put my finger on it. They want to know what can be known but they do not want to know what can’t be known. They want anecdotes, little intimacies, clues to habits and dress, pieces of the True Beer Can or True Old Pickup Truck. But they do not want to know who he really was, that core part each of us carries that others can only guess at and never really comprehend or possess — that we ourselves cannot fully understand. The most important part of a person remains unknown even to the person, the fire that from time to time causes a life to become a conflagration. Where the light comes from and why.

Why this book? And after that, why that book? Why the books at all? Why all this effort and pain? That is the part we seldom if ever get to know about ourselves. We are usu­ally afraid to ask, but should we be of unusual courage, our questioning will normally avail us very little. It is much eas­ier to find out who someone slept with than to discover what animated their waking hours and rode roughshod through the dreams that filled their nights. Such things almost always remain mysteries for a very simple reason. We do not know in any very convincing fashion why we are alive or why life itself exists. It is a great liberty granted us in a dark universe and we take this liberty without many questions and live it and then die while remaining as profoundly ignorant of the forces we embody as when we were babes in arms. He once wrote that he had never heard a mountain lion bawling about its fate and I always liked that statement. But I am not a mountain lion.

I am a person who lives in a world I can at times explain but seldom, if ever, understand. But I am here now, ready for the program. I have the experience and skill to recount things that happen in an orderly manner.

***

I just know I don’t want to do this program. I am here. Somehow I always thought the day would never arrive. I was wrong, a recurrent event in my life. The quiet tasteful room slowly stokes the anger within me, a cheap, easily dismissed anger that despises good taste as a mask behind which to hide the horrors that seem to dance before my eyes. I can feel flames creep up my throat and if this fire reaches my tongue we are all in for a world of hurt.

Years ago, I sloshed through a boozy evening in this room with a writer who had flown in to profile Abbey. The guy was clean-cut, living somewhere up in the Rockies, feeding on Bombay Gin, and polishing his first novel. He’d been a tennis pro and now had put down the racket and picked up the pen. He was a smart guy with a quick and critical intelligence. He’d been out to the house interviewing him, and then down to the university archive going through his papers. And by the time I showed up to be interviewed, he was mad.

So for hours we guzzled and talked. All in all, a pleasant eve­ning of barbed words and good cheer on his abundant expense account. He had a simple kind of thesis: he felt his subject was a mean fake. I didn’t agree but I come from a culture where you tolerate opinions and refuse to indulge in cheap concepts like heresy. It was the correspondence he read down at the archive that finally put him over the edge. The letters were witty, bril­liant, vicious, and often enraged. They were apparently full of denunciations of critics, of other writers, of the planet in general, and of the literary moguls that seemingly run the lit biz. The writer was really pissed at my friend’s crusade against Henry James the Dead and John Updike the Living. He explained that these attacks — apparently he spent hours reading epistles that cast both these worthies into the inner circle of hell or the shower room of a serious prison — came from my friend’s sense of inadequacy, his innate evil spirit, and his puerile jealousy. I mildly disagreed and only added that such exercises seemed a waste of time to me but if they made someone feel better, what the hell, it was okay by me. I’d had these conversations with my friend on many occasions and gleefully shared his sentiments but lacked his enthusiasm for expressing them.

Then we waded into the inevitable thesis, one I’d been wait­ing for like a toad on a fly trail, that I was to be the successor.

Here, I indulged in a bit of mock anger, merely noting that we hardly needed a new model since the classic model was still operating so well that he could drive a professional profiler into a tizzy and force him to imbibe serious amounts of gin in a sedate bar surrounded by Audubon’s shrouds of vanishing or vanished fauna.

I didn’t bother to tell him the obvious: nobody needed a new model because now there were thousands, maybe tens of thousands of chips off the old, wrathy block. Pull into any gas station and you’ll find him there. Sometimes he will be young, sometimes old, sometimes a man, sometimes a woman. He’ll cross class lines, do damn near any kind of work, often look just like everyone else, and be crazy as a shithouse rat. He’ll tell you his name is Jim or Jane and seem perfectly normal then somehow it becomes apparent she thinks a bug is as important as a Homo sapiens or that a rock pile is just fine and nope, not interested in selling no matter what the price. The word wilderness will slip out, and dynamite, sand in the crankcase, slow elk, naked swimming mixed with William Blake and have a beer, bub. She ’ll drink herbal tea and while she sips out of a fine china cup she’ll explain that a coyote’s fangs around a lamb’s throat is not an unpleasant prospect. New model? He’s become a consciousness and she is everywhere.

Once, I was in a national park office and noticed the book racks had none of his works. I asked a ranger why. He looked at me for a second and then snapped, “Because my fucking superintendent won’t let me stock them.” So there you have it — sometimes he even masquerades as a ranger with that natty uniform and comical hat. So it goes like that, everything seems fine and on the level and then she sees, say, a new subdivision and land scraped bare, and her mouth snarls and you hear her muttering, “Nunca mas, never again.”

When the profile surfaced some months later it was as I had suspected: a quick retrospective of the career, then a zoom lens and lots of videotape on The Problem, an early coda of me denouncing the notion of being a successor (I knew my mock anger would pass muster as indignation and heartfelt feeling), and then a fade-out about an overrated reputation fueled by an overweening ego. Spell the name right, it’ll sell the books — that was my final take on the piece. What it never mentioned was the real source of my gin-swilling companion’s rage: his subject was an original, and my drinking buddy that night knew he wasn’t and he never would be.

* * *

Excerpted from  The Red Caddy: Into the Unknown with Edward Abbey by Charles Bowden. © 2018 by the Charles Clyde Bowden Literary Trust Mary Martha Miles, Trustee With permission of the University of Texas Press.