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Black Sun is a 1971 novel by Edward Abbey about a rugged fire lookout who falls in love with an Americanmarker girl half his age and then becomes wrongly blamed when she mysteriously disappears in the National Park where he works.

The term "black sun" was used often in Abbey's work, according to The New West of Edward Abbey by Ann Ronald (page 177). He used it first in his second book, Fire on the Mountain to describe a sketch Billy makes after they discover someone has shot Billy's favorite horse, Rascal. He also uses it twice in his non-fiction book, The Journey Home and once in Abbey's Road.

Many friends of Abbey have claimed the author called Black Sun his favorite of his works. But it was not well received by critics and the public. The first-run paperback edition by Avon sold only 100,000 copies, where the first run of paperback editions for Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang both sold more than a half million copies, according to Cahalan's "Edward Abbey, A Life." He wrote: "The New Yorker called Black Sun 'an embarrassingly bad novel.' Even Abbey's new friend Edward Hoagland -- who had first written to him on March 19, 1970 praising Desert Solitaire -- lamented in the New York Times Book Review that Black Sun was "not a masterpiece" like Desert Solitaire, complaining that "he does not always finish his books but publishes next-to-last drafts."

Background

Although the location is not mentioned by name in the novel, it is set at the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Parkmarker, where Abbey worked at the time as a fire lookout in the fire tower just east of the main entrance at the North Rim. Stephen J. Pyne in his memoirs of his years as a firefighter at the North Rim, Fire on the Rim, wrote, concerning Abbey: "...fire busts came and went with hardly a word from the North Rim tower. Whether Abner was even in the tower, no one could say. He was a writer, and the only smokes he reported were the ones in his novels. He lived in a trailer behind the entrance cabin, but he was absent so often that he demonstrated that we did not need a lookout, because having Abner in the tower was the same as having no one. The position was abolished." Abbey was there for four seasons and wrote a nonfiction account in his book Abbey's Road.

Abbey dedicated the book to his second wife Judy, who had died of acute leukemia just before publication of the novel. Because Judy had spent some time with Abbey when he worked as a fire ranger, some readers naturally believe the book is based on their relationship. However, according to James M. Cahalan's "Edward Abbey, A Life," the character of Sandy MacKenzie was actually based on a woman Abbey had an affair with in 1963. His first draft of this book was completed in 1968, two years before Judy's death. Calhalan writes: "... it was a bone of contention in their marriage. He reported on March 17, 1968, that Judy hated it, 'thinking it the story of one of my old love affairs, which in a way it is, but only in a greatly altered and much exaggerated way. If only she understood that there's nothing deader than a dead romance.'"

Black Sun may have been the original title considered to an earlier book Abbey had written about a group of young mohicans driving across the western United States on U.S. Route 66, but the book was never published and remains unpublished to this day. Terry Bisson wrote in American Rebels (2003) that the title Abbey was considering was "Down the Road." The reason that manuscript was never published was because not long after Abbey finished his book, On the Road by Jack Kerouac appeared, and the two books bore so many resemblances that Abbey feared he would be accused of plagiarism if his novel were published.

Plot summary

The book is divided into three parts: In the forest; In the sun; and In the evening. One of the plot devices Abbey uses is to play with time. For example, while driving back from the rim and picking up Sandy's car, Abbey switches to a scene with Will at a bar watching Native Americans fighting. Or, after Sandy goes missing and Will and Larry fight, the reader gets a scene where Will and Sandy discuss Larry's upcoming visit.

The first part opens with Will Gatlin, a ranger who lives in a cabin under a fire watch tower, going about his daily routine, which includes climbing the tower to make sure there are no forest fires in sight. He hears people approaching, including the voices of women. He heats up a pot of coffee and puts on a clean shirt. A man, whose name Will quickly forgets, introduces himself and the two young ladies, Gloria Hollenbeck and Sandy MacKenzie. They ask if they can climb to the top of the tower and take in the view. Will leads them, but only Sandy is able to keep up with his quick pace. They admire the view up top before the other two finally arrive. After some brief excitement over a dust cloud, they descend for some coffee.

Art Ballentine arrives at Will's cabin one day to save Will from the desolation of his life. He urges Will to leave the forest, get a woman, get fat. He's a college professor driving through on his way to California with his wife, Elsie. He asks Will what is he doing with his life wasting it away alone looking for fires. Will answers he's staring at the sun. "Stare it out. Stand on this tower and stare at the sun until the sun goes ... black." They head back to the lodge that Art is staying at to have dinner with Elsie. However, Elsie wants no part of dinner with the two of them so they dine without her. Art offers his philosophy on women, admitting he sleeps with some of his female students. Will responds with no shock, thinking it was one of the perks of the job.

Later Will is in town mailing a letter when Sandy comes up to him. He struggles to recall her but does (he was more taken with Gloria, the rodeo queen on their first meeting). Sandy tells him Gloria and the unnamed man have left, but she stayed behind. She just finished hiking the canyon by herself. Will tells he she shouldn't do that alone, because it could be dangerous. He offers to buy her a drink at the bar, she informs him she can't go in, she's only 19. Will admits to being 37. After a few moments of conversation Will realizes that Sandy is nervous. When the conversation is coming to a close, he said he has to return to fix his bachelor supper. At the same moment she offers to come with him and cook for him, and he invites her along. They go back to her place where Sandy cooks a meal of stuffed peppers.

During the meal Will debates if he should take her to bed, believing she's willing. He decides she's in love, but not with him, and that she's probably a virgin. In the end, he decides to return to his cabin. Sandy asks him to join her on a flight to the other rim so she can retrieve her car from the hike she took. He says he would join her, if she can give him a couple of days notice. Then Sandy asks if he would like to kiss her. He says he would, and does.

Will gets a letter from Art. Elsie has left him and has been replaced by a 29-year-old named Darnelle, who he absolutely no intention of marrying.

The second part, In the Sun, opens with Will driving into town and spending 10 minutes in front of a gas station bathroom mirror trying to make himself look good all for a woman. He tries to remember the last time he did this for a girl, and can't recall when. He walks to her house where she is already waiting for him with a rucksack filled with supplies for a picnic. They embrace, kiss and then hop in the car and head toward the airport.

During the car ride Sandy tells Will that she's engaged to a 23-year-old cadet in the Air Force, Lawrence J. Turner the Third. Will lets her know that he's not surprised and if she was looking for some sign he was disappointed in the news, there is none. They reach the airport where the pilot and one other passenger are already waiting. They pay their fares and climb aboard. Will's a nervous flyer, but Sandy loves it. She said she's taken some flying lessons and thinks she could fly this plane. During the flight Sandy can spot the trail she had hiked a week earlier and points it out. When the plane makes its first attempt at landing there is a cow and its calf in the middle of the runway. For a second both Will and Sandy believe they are going to die, but the pilot flies up to avoid them. Finally they are safely on the ground and hop on a bus to get to the trail head. Once there they find Sandy's car, make a stop at a coffee shop for breakfast and then begin the 300-plus mile trip around the canyon back to their starting spot.

They stop for the picnic lunch that Sandy had promised Will for joining her on this trip. They drink a lot of wine and talk of many meaningless things. Will teaches her some Navajo words. They drive some more, then make another stop. Will offers Sandy more wine. She says "you're trying to get me drunk." Will says yes he is. She says "you're trying to seduce me." Will says yes he is. She then confesses to being a virgin, even though Will tells her he already figured that out and he forgives her for it. They go swimming in the river. For a moment, Sandy lets the current take her downriver, but Will gets excited and screams at her to stay away. She wonders why, and he points out there are rapids just around the bend and a current so strong she'd never be able to swim out of them. How long do they last? He says 300 miles, all the way through the canyon. They sleep on the beach but Sandy asks Will to wait, that she's still afraid.

Art sends another letter to Will, this time to inform him Darnelle has left him and he's currently alone. But, fear not, for there are 50,000 in this city alone waiting to take her place.

Will drives to spend a weekend with Rosalie, the woman he would have sex with on a semi-regular basis before Sandy entered his life. She has three children and a missing husband. Will tries to seduce her, but Rosie asks him will he marry her. When he says no, she goes to watch television. When Will still shows no interest in marriage, she gives in and says she might as well make love to him. After sex on the couch in front of the TV, Rosie falls asleep, Will carries her to her bed. Then he drinks another beer, gets dressed and leaves for the neighborhood bar.

Will and Sandy are driving and she's talking about Larry, her fiance. Will shows no intention of getting jealous. She asks if there is a phone in the next town so she can call Larry. He points out there are rooms in the next town. He admits he wants to make love to her, sleep, then make love to her again. She says not yet. They drive on, even though both are very tired. She falls asleep and he has to gently wake her when they reach her home. He turns and leaves with her calling after him. She wants to know if he'll come if she calls. He says no, next time she must come to him. And bring a toothbrush.

Will receives a letter from Lawrence J. Turner asking him to leave his fiancee alone. She had confessed to her fiance that she was growing fond of Will and that he was an older man. Larry promises to hold him responsible for whatever happens to Sandy.

Sandy comes to Will, with her toothbrush. She admits to being scared, because she's never spent the night with a man before. He admits to being scared, because he's never spent the night with her before. He says the only remedy is for both of them to get a little drunk. They go to bed together that night.

Will makes her breakfast in the nude, because he has ever intention of returning to bed to continue their lovemaking. Sandy worries that Larry won't marry her now, because she's no longer a virgin. Will says if Larry won't, he will. She asks if that's a proposal. He says sure. Will says he smells smoke and must climb the tower. He does, with Sandy, but there is no smoke to be seen. He reports in by radio, where they notice he's an hour late. They ask if he's drunk. Will says worse yet, he's in love.

Another letter from Art, this one more philosophical than the rest. Darnelle has returned and wants him. He begs Will to write back, knowing he never will. Says he might drive out there and visit again.

Will and Sandy go on a hike together, making love often and Will tells Sandy to take it easy on him, as he's an old man.

Part three, In the Evening, opens with a letter to Will from Rosie. She thanks him for the check he sent and asks why she hasn't seen him in nearly a year. She, and the children, miss him and wish he would visit again.

Will walks out of the lodge and spots a young man waiting for him. He knows immediately who it is. After a terse greeting, they go off to the side and Larry asks Will where is she? Will says he doesn't know. Sandy had left him a note saying that she wanted to be alone for a few days, and that's all he knew. Larry lets Will know that he doesn't believe him and that he thinks Will had something to do with Sandy going missing. Larry also said he had every intention of beating Will up, but now that he met him and discovered him a coward, he'd be too embarrassed to thrash him. Will insults him, so Larry does beat him up. Will refuses to fight back, and instead offers to buy Larry a drink.

Going back in time Sandy talks about Larry's upcoming visit to her. He's been writing and calling her for months, with many of those calls and letters going unreturned. Will says he wants to marry Sandy, but she wonders if she can live in a cabin by a fire watch tower in the woods eating poached meat for the rest of her life.

Sandy writes Will a note, saying that she needs to get away for a few days to figure things out. With Larry visiting on Sunday she realizes she must make a decision. Does she want to be with Larry, or Will? She wishes Will would help her with this choice more, but realizes it is something she has to figure out on her own.

Sandy's car was spotted by a ranger near a trail, but has since gone. Will loads up supplies and notifies his boss, Wendell, that he's not going to be available for a while. Wendell pleads with him not to abandon his post, but Will refuses. He's going to search for Sandy. Larry had already tried this, and flying around looking for her. But he didn't know how to survive in the wild and he nearly killed himself. Now he just sits in Sandy's home, hoping that somehow she will return to him. And he also blames Will for whatever has happened to his fiancee.

Will spends days hiking through the canyon, searching for Sandy. It's harsh terrain and tests even an experienced hand like himself. Larry would never survive this hike. Sandy may not have. At one point he sees a group of buzzards circling overhead. He climbs his way there, but finds only the body of a deer that had fallen from the cliff.

Art writes that he has finally received a one-word letter from Will, and yes he will come. He asks about the terrible year they are having at the park this year, with the fires and the dead bodies. He asks if they ever found the body of that girl who went missing three years ago?

Art spends the final week with Will at his job at the park. Winter is coming soon and there will be no need for anyone to keep watch. On the final day Will says he won't be coming back and isn't much troubled by that fact. As they leave, Will pulls over every now and again to cut down a tree with a power saw to block the road and keep people out. "Won't the snow do that," Art asks. Yes, Will says, but it's not snowing yet. They finally get to the end and close the gate that says road closed.

They drive to a local coffee shop where Art flirts with a waitress named Claire.

Characters

  • Will Gatlin – A 37-year-old ranger who mans a fire watch tower in the forest.
  • Sandy MacKenzie – A brash 19-year-old woman who is falling in love with the forest.
  • Art Ballentine – A college professor and friend of Will's.
  • Elsie Ballentine – Art's wife
  • Gloria Hollenbeck – A friend of Sandy's who Will thinks of as the "rodeo queen."
  • Wendell – Will's boss, who he reports into every morning from the fire watch tower
  • Lawrence J. Turner the Third – Sandy's fiance and a 23-year-old Air Force cadet
  • Rosalie – A woman Will would see on a semi-regular basis for sex who lived 90 miles away with her three children



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