WAY OFF ABBEY'S ROAD

CHUCK BOWDEN EXTOLS ARIZONA'S UNIQUE PLANTS AND ANIMALS. HIS LATEST SUBJECTS ARE WEASELS IN THREE-PIECE SUITS.

Lola, Bowden says, is about sex.
@rule:
@body:Parts of Bowden's life can be summarized, Bowden's having captured them in books. Other turning points, such as his short but successful term as a writer for the Tucson Citizen, the period that introduced him to a significant audience, haven't yet been captured in hardcover.

The chronology that brought Bowden to Charles Keating begins on the South Side of Chicago and takes some turns at such colorful 1960s diversions as the Monterey Pop Festival, the civil rights movement in the South and student demonstrations on radical college campuses. Sex, drugs and rock n' roll are all part of Bowden's pre-Charlie time line. (Amplification can be found in Mezcal, Red Line and Desierto, the three most autobiographical collections of Bowden essays.)

According to the girl who sat in front of him in elementary school (Rebecca Brodt Weinberg, now a family therapist in Tucson), Bowden was bright, but quiet, even then--not a joiner, but funny.

His dad, Jude, was a civil servant in Chicago, a reader who would buy a store out of an author's stuff if he liked one book. The family moved to the South Side from the Joliet area when Chuck was 3. Jude Bowden retired and moved his family to Tucson (one of Bowden's siblings had asthma) when Chuck was 12.

Chuck attended Tucson High School, hated it, then grabbed an undergraduate degree in history from UofA in 34 months. He hated that, too, but did well enough at UofA to qualify for scholarship money for graduate school. He attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison for several years, spending most of his time in the library.

Most, but not all. He worked a job on the side, got married (to ex-wife No. 1) and occasionally left Madison for adventurous runs around the country. The 1960s were in full roar, and Bowden was listening. He saw the first of the great rock festivals, in Monterey, California, in 1967, and spent the Summer of Love in San Francisco (there's a poster of Janis Joplin in his house today; he heard her singing on the streets back then).

Bowden saw the South from the perspective of black freedom fighters, and, in the fall of 1969, he participated in the stop-the-war March on Washington that peaked, for him, while watching John Mitchell puff a pipe on the roof of the Justice building. Bowden, feeling especially alive, split that scene just as the police began to bust up the demonstrators' party down below. It was a "pretty basic 60s experience," he says now.

Bowden taught American history briefly at the University of Illinois-Chicago Circle, but eventually returned to Tucson, where he found work in a couple of different spots at UofA, including the Office of Arid Lands Studies and the Radio-Television-Film Bureau. He also helped to write various grant-funded special programs done by Tucson Public Library.

"To me, there's always been a pattern to what I've done," says Bowden. "But let's say it doesn't show a normal career trajectory.

"I never thought I'd be a writer. I thought I'd grow up."
@rule:
@body:Bowden's first book was a product of his association with UofA's Office of Arid Lands Studies. Assigned to write an introduction for a bibliography of aquifer research, Bowden produced several hundred pages of poetic analysis of the history of groundwater in the Southwest.

Bowden was fired for producing literature instead of writing, and ever since, critics have been taking shots at Bowden's style, which has been described as "unique, powerful and occasionally overwrought." The label "self-indulgent" pops up a lot, too.

With the help of bibliophile and Western-literature anthologist Lawrence Clark Powell, Bowden's essay on groundwater, a subject that, when discussed in public, permanently fuses eyelids closed, eventually became Killing the Hidden Waters, published in 1977 by University of Texas Press.

Bowden continued to hang around UofA, and he was working for the Radio-Television-Film Bureau when he was awarded a grant from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. The Tucson Citizen, in announcing the $15,000 award, wrote: "His fellowship will support his investigation of 'The Growth and Marketing of Muskmelons and Cantaloupes.'"

Bowden says the idea came to him while he was en route to Arizona from California, when he picked up a Mexican hitchhiker who had just come from the melon fields near Yuma: "I thought, 'I can't understand my country, but if I pick one thing and try to understand that. . . .'"

The Guggenheim award didn't manifest itself in print for several years. When it did, the book was not an analysis of melon marketing, but a sociological examination of Chicago neighborhoods (Street Signs Chicago: Neighborhoods and Other Illusions of Big City Life, co-authored by Lew Kreinberg and published by Chicago Review Press).

"I thought a Guggenheim was something they gave people not like me," says Bowden.

@rule:
@body:Bowden's career trajectory bent again in 1981. In his mid-30s, at an age when most newspaper reporters first start peeking at their 401(k) projections, he was hired as a reporter by the Tucson Citizen.

By the time he left the Citizen a few years later, he had won the highest journalism honor in the state, top writing prizes within the massive Gannett newspaper chain, and almost a Pulitzer Prize.

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