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In 'The Red Caddy,' A Nearly-Lost Portrait Of A Complicated Friend

Near the beginning of The Red Caddy, Charles Bowden's slim tribute to the author and environmental activist Edward Abbey, Bowden makes an interesting observation about his late friend's career: "He created a fairly unusual readership — either people have never heard of him or have read everything he ever wrote." It's an exaggeration, of course — plenty of people read his most famous novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, but never become Abbey completists.

But it gets to a central truth about the Arizona author: He elicited strong reactions, both positive and negative, from whoever read his work. That was by design; he never went out of his way to be liked, and he — or the persona he created in his writing — was about as cuddly and approachable as a desert saguaro.

Bowden, a journalist and author who died in 2014, knew Abbey better than most, perhaps, and attempts to paint a picture of the southwestern iconoclast in The Red Caddy. Discovered on his computer after his death, it's a fascinating artifact that's by turns charming and maddening — just like Abbey himself.

The book gets its title from Abbey's beloved car, a 1975 convertible Cadillac Eldorado. It was an odd choice of transport for Abbey, a militant environmentalist; as Bowden notes, it "got about eight miles to the gallon." But as Bowden's book demonstrates, Abbey was nothing if not a collection of grand contradictions.

The Red Caddy takes an almost stream-of-consciousness form, consisting of Bowden's thoughts about his friend as he prepares to take part in an event honoring his memory. Bowden is ambivalent about participating, fearing that Abbey is becoming something of a hero for the far left: "It's very depressing to know and like someone and then have them die and be made into a saint. It is like watching them being buried alive."

He goes on to trace the roots of his friendship with Abbey — which, had it been up to Bowden, might never have happened ("The first time I met him I was not trying to meet him. I do not like writers"). There are anecdotes, some amusing and some horrifying, and attempts to explain Abbey to what Bowden must have assumed would be skeptical readers — Abbey was stubbornly unrespectable, and much of his writing hasn't aged well.

Those are the parts of The Red Caddy that are the most interesting as well as frustrating. "He is still too dangerous. AIDS? Herd all the patients out into the desert and leave them to die before they f*** up our sex lives. Illegal immigration? Stop those Mexicans at the border, give 'em each a Winchester 94 and a case of ammo, and then send them home equipped to solve their own problems." Abbey loudly and repeatedly proclaimed himself an anarchist, but he had no problem provoking readers with reactionary opinions that today sound like a kind of proto-Trumpism.

Bowden is honest about Abbey's shortcomings: "I think everyone would save themselves a lot of time and trouble if they just concluded he was guilty of every vice and ism known to man." But he can't quite hide his grudging admiration of his friend: "He will never be what you approve of, though he will (with alarming frequency) be what you secretly think but are afraid to say or admit to." It's at times like these that readers whose opinions of women and Mexican immigrants are positive might wish Bowden would speak for himself.

Whatever else was true of him, Abbey was an original, and there's definitely no doubt that Bowden — despite his occasional stumbles into macho Kerouacian bravado — was a hell of a writer.

At one telling point in the book, Bowden claims that Abbey "lived in a moral universe" that lay "beneath all the sexist barbs, the racist wit, the meanness." He sounds like he's trying to convince himself, not his readers, that this make sense. And maybe that was the case — The Red Caddy might well have been a letter Bowden wrote to himself; he wrote it in 1994 and evidently never shared it with anyone. It could easily have been lost to history.

And despite how frustrating the book can be, that would have been a shame. Whatever else was true of him, Abbey was an original, and there's definitely no doubt that Bowden — despite his occasional stumbles into macho Kerouacian bravado — was a hell of a writer. The Red Caddy is an excellent coda to an accomplished career, even if Bowden sometimes seems ambivalent about his own place in the world: "I am poor at remembering the past and much better at inhabiting it. Things that were actually exist to me. I am the enemy of history and yet a card-carrying member of the dead."

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.