Monkeywrenching

EDWARD ABBEY once said that he kept his .357 magnum handy whenever he wrote, because "you never know when God may try to interfere." He also believed that "life is unfair. And it's not fair that life is unfair." Death interfered with Abbey last March, only 11 days after he finished the introduction to what will be his last book, A Voice Crying in the Wilderness (St. Martin's). He came from long-lived stock and was only 61; it was more than a little unfair.

A collection of extracts and fragments from 40 years of personal journals, Wilderness is by turns annoying, vulgar, cranky, crude and funny. Sometimes it's most of the above at once: Reading Jane Austen, Abbey wrote, "is like getting in bed with a cadaver."

Some of the tamer entries: "Who needs astrology? The wise man gets by on fortune cookies." "Little boys love machines; girls adore horses; grown-up men and women like to walk." "One word is worth a thousand pictures. If it's the right word."

Abbey's words -- particularly in his 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang -- have inspired the cutting-edge environmental groups. Direct action to keep mining, logging, grazing or other forms of development out of the wilderness is now frequently termed "monkeywrenching," and Abbey is quoted in their literature more often than Thoreau. In the rather flamboyantly titled Green Rage: Radical Environmentalism and the Unmaking of Civilization (Little, Brown), Christopher Manes provides the first in-depth look at this movement.

Green Rage is remarkably timely, especially after the Oakland, Calif., bomb explosion two weeks ago that injured two members of the radical Earth First! group. The couple were involved with "Redwood Summer," an already controversial series of Northern California demonstrations aimed at protecting old-growth redwoods. Darryl Cherney, one of the bombing figures, is quoted in Green Rage: "As the Earth's condition gets worse, radical environmentalists will become more aggressive in defense of the planet." Or, as Abbey argued, "If the end does not justify the means -- what can?"

The book's view is thoughtful but partisan: The author has been active in the cause for several years, and was an editor of the Earth First! journal. But even those who agree, at least in principle, with the immediate goals of radical environmentalism may find themselves uncomfortable with its extreme desire to return the whole world to wilderness. As an Earth First! slogan has it: "Back to the Pleistocene!"

The Long and Short of It

AFTER READING 26,000 pieces of short fiction -- each of which she summarized in one sentence -- Shannon Ravenel is giving up her position as series editor of Best American Short Stories. Since the death of the previous editor, Martha Foley, in 1977, Ravenel has been responsible for culling the cream of the year's work and sending it to the volume's big-name guest editor.

That worked out to about 175 stories a month, of which she might send 10 to the guest editor. Along with William Abrahams, who does similiar work for the O. Henry annuals, this means Ravenel must have consumed more published short stories than anyone else in the past decade.

Most of the time, too, she read the whole thing. "Even if I wasn't caught up," she says, "I would still read it to the end, but with rather less attention." That takes time, which is one thing Ravenel has less of since she became an editor at Algonquin Books -- the primary reason she is quitting.

When it comes to what makes a good story, Ravenel has only one rule: If you ask "so what?" after finishing it and don't receive a good answer, the story has failed. "There's got to be a reason why the writer chose to tell this stuff in this particular time and place. You can't just recount for 10 pages and call it a short story."

In spite of all that fiction, she never got the urge to do it herself. In college, she says, "I majored in English, I was the editor of a literary journal, but I never had the proper urge to write. I had to force the story out. The ones who succeed in writing can't help it. They don't have to have talent as much as terrible drive."

The last volume Ravenel worked on has Richard Ford as guest editor; it will appear in the fall. Meanwhile, a selection from the past decade, The Best American Short Stories of the Eighties, has just been published by Houghton Mifflin. The striking thing about it is how relatively well-known the authors are. To identify most of them, it is only necessary to give their last names: Ozick, Bowles, Gallant, Munro, Oates, Le Guin, Updike.

"This is a form that takes practice," Ravenel says. "The more you do it, the better you get."

Catching Up With the Thaw

"AT TIMES history hibernates, at times it runs like a gazelle," writes Ewa Kuryluk in Without Force or Lies: Voices from the Revolution of Central Europe in 1989-90 (Mercury House). History in the Warsaw Pact countries over the past 12 months has outpaced by a considerable margin the schedules of book publishers; but you can expect, starting this summer, a goodly supply of reports and reflections as the region awakes from a hibernation resembling a deep freeze.

Without Force or Lies is one of the first, mixing well-known pieces with previously unpublished works. Among the originals are Polish exile Kuryluk's evocative account of her return to her native land last summer -- searching for a washing machine, the sudden popularity of once-forbidden songs of the Warsaw Uprising, the hesitant reintroduction of political pluralism, a sense of "vacationing on top of a volcano."

When it comes to the Soviet side of things, there's always been an abundance of material issued in this country -- although here, too, the pace seems to be picking up. One of the more unusual entries is Openings: Original Essays by Contemporary Soviet and American Writers (University of Washington Press). In its efforts to show that underneath everything we've got a lot in common, this big paperback is oddly reminiscent of the sort of propaganda that was a Soviet staple for years.

Openings, however, has better production values. In fact, its impressive and varied photographs make this the first Soviet-American coffeetable book. The essays have a harder task: Geoffrey Ward on History, Barry Lopez on Geography and Joyce Carol Oates on Literature are the big American names, but their topics are so vague that they often seem to flounder in lists and generalities.

The Soviets, on the other hand, tend to be more personal. The picture Viktor Potanin draws of his town seems straight out of Chekhov: "The conversations in the houses are still the same -- weary, faded, aimless, often Moscow gossip that reaches these distant parts almost half a year late. The people are the same, too -- tired, beaten down by life, utterly without desires . . . And amid all this dreariness you will have to live, listening to the ancient music of nature."