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Black Sun, 1971
This slim volume is unique in Abbey's output, although unmistakably from the same pen as Desert Solitaire, Fire on the Mountain, The Monkey Wrench Gang, Down the River and all the other quasi-cult titles set in the western U.S. and comprising Abbey's often belligerent, brash, and bawdy, but always lyrical celebrations of man's natural environment, the unspoiled wilderness. For those unfamiliar with this outspoken flagbearer of a beleaguered counterculture, here is an excerpt from his April 1967 preface to Desert Solitaire:I know nothing whatever about true underlying reality, having never met any ... I am pleased enough with surfaces ... such things for example as the grasp of a child's hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of friend or lover, the silk of a girl's thigh, the sunlight on rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear water into a pool, the face of the wind--what else is there? What else do we need?
Articulated in three sections (In the Forest, In the Sun, In the Evening), Black Sun describes with raw but manfully restrained pain the inception, the fulfilment, and the uncomprehended closing of a brief love affair between a reclusive forest ranger and a fresh, vital young girl almost half his age. Abbey himself often worked as a Park Ranger and the dedication of this book (For Judy, 1943-1970 -- wherever) suggests an autobiographical wellspring for some elements of the fictional story, which was written in the wake of the death of Abbey's wife and is told with the unflinching intensity of a man baring his innermost heart. The author exerts perfect narrative control over his material. Never does the tone degenerate from disciplined sorrow into trite pathos, misery, or self-pity.
Will Gatlin has turned his back on the cities, has walked away from a marriage and a career. He has pared his life down to the simplest essentials. Rising with the dawn to the inarticulate voices of the living forest, he ascends a 90-foot fire tower high in the Rockies and spends his solitary days scanning the horizon for smoke. Lonely but content, Will does not suspect his vulnerability until grief and deprivation have already become his constant companions.
Sandy Mackenzie is a maiden on the verge of womanhood. Comely, bright, and pert, she brims with youthful contrasts. Both shy and bold, hesitant and adventurous, she deliberately forces herself on Will's distracted attention and then ingenuously draws back. Sandy is engaged to an upright, and rather uptight, young man who intends to marry a virgin. But she cannot resist choosing Will to initiate her and in so doing involves herself in a relationship beyond her powers to control. Will's love is all displayed in actions and gestures, but Sandy's inexperience and lack of confidence require the constant reassurance of words. Words that echo in Will's mind, but refuse to pass his lips. Often embarassed by Will's passion, Sandy is a girl of the cities with conventional expectations of her future, whatever her buoyant summer abandon in the arms of a man with no impulse to return to ways of life he has rejected. "Live in a shack in the woods for the rest of my life, eating poached deer?" she asks Will in disbelief. "Yes." "Raise my children in a treehouse?" He was silent.
In his own extravagant joy Will fails to perceive the extent of Sandy's dilemma and underestimates the immaturity which hinders an adult resolution of it. Unable to choose between Will and her fiancé, who is about to arrive in the mountains for some rather urgent clarifications, she claims a few days' thinking time alone. Then she vanishes, leaving both men to search for her in vain. Engulfed by the hazardous surrounding wilderness? Safe after flight to the neon lights of the outer world? The mystery remains unsolved, for no trace of her is found. She is simply gone. Wherever.
Through spare but precise allusions Abbey expands his story to embrace the archetypes of classical myth. Satyrs chasing dryads in the woods, the dark Lord of the Underworld seizing Proserpina and dragging her for a time into his kingdom, and even the descent of Orpheus to Hades to redeem Eurydice when Will descends (in a memorable descriptive sequence) into the deep, hot, treacherous canyon that local Indians fear as a home to the evil gods. And Will is indeed an Orphic bard, with a head full of English verse (poetry lovers will identify apt fragments of Andrew Marvell, Sir Thomas Wyatt, and others) and a fund of songs for all occasions. He teases Sandy with "Green grow the rashes O." He strides the mountains bellowing political ballads. He stands bereaved in the forest singing a lament.
Will is alone when we find him. He has stayed at his ranger's post for several years after Sandy's disappearance, obsessed by memories and hard-dying hopes. The outside world intrudes from time to time; letters come, his friend Ballantine visits to blather about his own inane woes and hector Will about his hermit's existence. Will is impervious, immersed in a vivid inner life where "across the chasm of time and inconsolable loss" he sees her everywhere, incarnate in the life of the forest, in the does venturing into his clearing to lick salt. "Always at the corner of my eye, just beyond the focus of my vision, something moves, disappears when I turn toward it. Day after day." This framing narrative is all set in the present tense, constantly interrupted by past-tense evocations of Will's most cherished scenes from the love affair. On a first impact with Black Sun some readers might overlook the first carefully crafted tense changes, but that only adds to the immediacy of the experience, bringing Will's remembrances directly into the present as if the past story were going on now, as for Will it always is.
When winter descends, Will finally surrenders and allows Ballantine to bring him away, never to return. He fells trees to block access. He "closes that road." His last action is to write a one-word note which he slips into the "trysting log" where he and Sandy used to leave their messages. What is the word? The reader is in a position to make a tentative guess, but Abbey does not choose to say.
This beautiful minor work of art deserves to be better known. As for the title, references to the sun abound and there is also a significant scene atop the fire tower where Will alarms Ballantine with a declaration that what he wants to do is "stare at the sun...stare it down...stare it out. Stand on this tower and stare at the sun until the sun goes...black." But it is likely that Abbey deliberately chose his title from a verse ("my star-studded lute bears the black sun") in Gérard de Nerval's El Desdichado, from a passage which Abbey never cites in the novel but which describes it too exactly to be coincidental: "Je suis le ténébreux, le veuf, l'inconsolé,/Le Prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie./Ma seule étoile est morte; mon luth constellé/Porte le soleil noir de la mélanconie."
© Wordreign, July 1999
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