THE SERPENTS OF PARADISE: A Reader by Edward Abbey (Henry Holt/John Macrae: $25; 398 pp.). Edward Abbey sure could write, couldn't he? Here's a quotation from "The Journey Home," in which Abbey describes bumming his way Out West from Pennsylvania in 1944: "I was seventeen: wise, brown, ugly, shy, poetical; a bold, stupid, sun-dazzled kid, out to see the country before giving his life in the war against Japan. A kind of hero, by God! Terrified but willing." Abbey's prose, in this passage as everywhere, crackles with energy and contradiction, innocence and swagger, as the late writer attempts to embrace the complexity of experience through a personal, willfully idiosyncratic lens.

Abbey might be called a writer by profession, but his true calling was life itself, and not so much his own life as that of the natural world. Yes, he could be a misanthrope, a drunk, a name-caller, a womanizer, a provocateur, an egomaniac, an eco-criminal--but he never contrived or soft-pedaled his beliefs, and therein lies his virtue. "The Serpents of Paradise" reeks with authenticity (I bet Abbey loved that verb), for "the original fly in the ointment," as Tom McGuane called him, was unrepentantly plain-spoken. In "A Writer's Credo" he declares: "Since we cannot expect much truth from our institutions, we must expect it from our writers." The weakest parts of this collection deal with Abbey's native Appalachia, where the author seems somewhat out of place; the best, naturally, on his adopted desert West, which he celebrates for primitiveness and openness and mourns for rapid decline into "industrial tourism."

The biggest surprise in "The Serpents of Paradise" is how well some of Abbey's fiction stands up, often--in the excerpts from "Brave Cowboy" and "Black Sun"--displaying the humanity absent from his nonfiction. Right or wrong, subtle or overbearing, Abbey was the real thing, and this collection underlines how much we'll miss his distinctive, dauntless, dead-serious voice.

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