Settling into this book was tough for me. The main character, Henry Lightcap, presents as a self-indulgent anarchist crank, gun-toting and sexist and not very likable. His wife packs him in, leaving him broke. He shoots his fridge full of holes, and along with his sick dog (and in his sick truck), starts on a road-trip east from Arizona to Stump Creek, West Virginia to see his brother and his mother and the farm on which he grew up. Along the way, Henry washes down opiates with beer (while driving) and tosses the cans out the window. I know Abbey has been embraced by environmentalists, but they must have had a challenging time swallowing the contradictions afoot in this character.
There is a finality about this trip east. Henry searches out some old friends he needs to see and then heads east to West Virginia. As he drives toward his childhood home, we learn about Henry’s life, his family, various wars and Henry’s great loves. We learn of his love for the West, for the desert and the forest. Henry’s happiest times with his wife Claire are associated in the novel with the land (they even go mushroom picking together).
Henry makes a choice early on to work as little as possible. He is not built for the work-a-day world, which is simply madness to him. The low-paying seasonal job as a park ranger is one of few roles that suit him. It’s a job in which he can work on his own, be on the land and as a bonus get laid off at the end of each season. He has little concern for lack of money or security.
In Henry’s mind, America is rapidly heading for ruin. On an earlier trip east, he talks with his brother about “progress” and comments that it is overtaking the West too but they are perhaps 30 years behind. Although Henry and his brother Will are different in many ways, they share a distaste for the modern world, which Henry believes will be destroyed by overpopulation. Will lives without an indoor toilet, without running water and without electricity. The brothers agree – America is in trouble.
I found myself becoming more sympathetic to Henry as the novel unfolded. He is way more sensitive than he would like to let on and he’s suffered more than he would tell you. Henry’s not just an anarchist crank. He’s a romantic, trying to make the best life he can in a crazy world, on his own terms. If those terms don’t suit anyone else, he accepts that. Henry’s not big on compromise.
I can’t imagine The Fool’s Progress being set anywhere but America. It is a long rant about freedom and wilderness and doomed America, bleak and powerful with an underlying dark humour.