Edward Abbey's first-best book is, of course, "Desert Solitaire," that fictionalized non-fiction work that so eloquently celebrates the pristine Southwest wilderness and mourns its destruction at the hands of industry and politics.
"The Brave Cowboy" is known to many through its filmization with Kirk Douglas. Despite the inane title, "Lonely Are the Brave," it is an excellent movie. But the book is even more excellent.
If you see this work purely as social commentary -- the individual at odds with society -- you miss the point. That aspect of the book, while it is an impassioned message from one of this country's best nature writers, is almost too obvious to deserve mention. The message, and the beautifully detailed setting of Western plains and mountains, are the background.
The foreground is a character study of Jack Burns, a man in perpetual rebellion against authority and incapable of commitment to anything outside of himself. He is generous and caring, but he allows no one to penetrate his stubborn exterior. He refuses to be vulnerable to love or to any of the normal compromises that permit even the most hardened of us individualists to survive in the real world.
He is inevitably doomed by his own intransigence, and that is what makes the story more than just "sad": it is a genuine tragedy. And like all successful tragedies, it is uplifting. The book's triumph is that, even while we know the outcome, we envy Jack Burns.
This book is a youthful work. You won't find a Hemingway or a Fitzgerald in the writing style, or even a Jack London. It is a popular book, more like a best-seller than "literature." Nevertheless, the excellence of its story raises it above the main. It is simply a great, and greatly affecting, read.