The Reporter As Lyricist
I know a man who, at the end of letters, signs off with the words "Bowden for President." He's talking about Tucson-based author Charles Bowden. He's joking. But only partly; this kind of fanaticism is common among admirers of Bowden's books.
Bowden may be the best unknown writer in America. He's certainly the best writer ever to come out of Arizona.
Some people--including myself--believe him to be the best writer of nonfiction working in English today. His intense, skeletal prose is compelling and yet exhausting to read. His sentences have the feeling of tightly clenched fists; a few words from Bowden carry more information and nuance than other writers manage in an entire page.
When I first encountered his work, I was at the lowest point in my life. I had just moved to America. A long relationship had just come to an ugly and painful end. I wanted to be in America, and I wanted the relationship to be over. But I didn't have any idea what I was going to do next.
Then a friend gave me a copy of Bowden's book Red Line. It served as a kind of emotional and philosophical map for me. It was a guidebook to life in the desert as many people actually live it. Despairing though the book seems to be, I took solace from it, from knowing that someone had taken such grimness and made a book out of it.
The epigraph to Red Line is a Bible quotation: Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire; your land, strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate, as overthrown by strangers. The book opens with a distraught, numb Bowden walking across the Mexican border back into America. He's been on a 200-mile hiking trip. He gets in his truck and drives home to Tucson. As he drives, he drinks beer after beer, and drives so fast that the truck's tachometer reaches the red line that signals danger. There's no external reason for his hurry.
The next chapter begins: "My son is born at first light. The body is slippery, the head covered with dark hair. The labor has been ten hours. I have come to the hospital straight from work on a Saturday night. There is no marriage surrounding this event, we do not live together, there has been no careful plan. These words sound in my ears like a grocery list of failure. I am forty-one years old and now I am beginning a life when my own feels like a last chapter."
As the book goes on, Bowden notices a short item in a newspaper, about the murder of a young Mexican drug dealer named El Nacho. He becomes obsessive about Nacho, focusing the barrenness of his own life onto that of Nacho. He begins to piece together the details of Nacho's life and death, its meaning and its meaninglessness. The journey takes in not just the lives of Nacho and Bowden, but the underbelly of the entire Southwest.
Bowden's stack of other books (he says 14, his girlfriend swears 16, and bookstores and libraries aren't sure) is hardly less brilliant. Perhaps because he has written about the natural world, bookstores place his books under "Nature" or "Ecology." Drug dealers, striking miners and Charles Keating--all subjects of his books--undoubtedly have their place in our ecosystem, but they don't normally attract the attention of "nature writers."
He always writes in the first person, and the narrative often takes its impetus from details of his own life. And yet he never really writes about himself. You can read his entire output and still know little about the man. Critics often draw comparisons with the late Edward Abbey, a friend and admirer of Bowden's, but there is no similarity. While Abbey admitted that the "Edward Abbey" who appeared in his books was very different from the Edward Abbey who wrote them, he was self-obsessed in the extreme, constantly interrupting his narratives with irrelevant anecdotes about himself.
In contrast, the "Charles Bowden" who appears in the books of Charles Bowden isn't really a character, but a wandering pair of eyes and ears. While there is no American writer he can usefully be compared to, his work is in the tradition of such Japanese writers as Basho and Issa, whose transcendental travelogues hauntingly depict the country's landscape and mindscape without bringing us close to the writer. Like them, Bowden doesn't let us feel like he's telling us the story--he makes us feel that we're experiencing it. In his books, "Charles Bowden" is not the name of a character--it's the name of the place where the reader stands, a vantage point from which to view the narrative.
Bowden says he hasn't been influenced by Japanese literature. "Well, I eat sushi sometimes," he says, laughing. But he likes the description of himself as a pair of eyes. "I come from working-class people. As a reporter, I get to go to places they don't get to go and see things that they don't get to see. So I try to be their eyes. They're working jobs that keep them from being able to see what they want to see, so I think, 'Okay, what would they want to know?' That's why I love that word, 'reporter.' Because that's what I do--I fucking report."
"Charles Bowden" might be considered his byline rather than his name. People call him Chuck, and that's how he refers to himself, when he does. He's 52 years old, tall, big-boned but thin, with a tangle of dark hair going gray. His voice sounds like a manic Tom Waits.
He lives in a roomy house in Tucson, on a street near the University of Arizona. He likes Tucson. "It's on the edge of things. But the action is always at the edge, never the center."
His life now is different from the life depicted in Red Line (1989), Mezcal (1988) and Blue Desert (1986). He's settled in a relationship. His son is now 10, and lives with his mother. Bowden goes to bed early in the evening and gets up at three in the morning to write.
I watch him cooking risotto in his kitchen. "I make risotto to keep from getting depressed. It's better than Prozac."
Does he like his life now?
"That's like asking a man dying of thirst if he likes water. Of course I do. That life in the books is not a good way to live."
Bowden came late to writing. His degree from UofA is in history, not literature. He tried teaching, but it wasn't for him. "I knew I'd end up a tenured professor with a wife who wore sweaters and hated me and cooked me horrible dinners." He worked various jobs, including mowing lawns, while putting his first wife through law school. "She's a successful attorney now, so I guess that worked."
He had always liked to read, and to tell stories or hear stories told. But why he began writing the books he writes is a mystery to him. His first, Killing the Hidden Waters, appeared in 1977. He received a Guggenheim grant soon after.
In 1981, he found himself broke. So he contacted the Tucson Citizen and hustled for work. "I basically lied my way into the job," he says. There was an air of resentment from some of the reporters, who disliked the presence of "a writer."
The resentment of his colleagues didn't last long, he says. "I'm a friendly guy. As long as they weren't getting in the way of my work, I didn't care."
Bowden didn't shirk hard reporting, though. What he did was make literature out of it. He hiked across the desert with wetbacks, following a route in southwest Arizona that's littered with the skeletons of those who have tried to walk it. He lived out of his truck while he covered a miners' strike. He wrote about sex crimes. He won an Arizona Journalist of the Year Award for his efforts.
He liked the job. "Sitting there at seven in the morning, drinking coffee and reading the paper. Then the phone rings, there's some horrible disaster somewhere a hundred miles away, and I'd get in my truck . . ."
But the brutality of the stories was burning him out. And when Gannett, the owner of the paper, began laying off journalists, he quit in disgust.
His style had been defined by his work at the paper. The job had given him license to go where he otherwise would never have gone. He went freelance, cranking out his weird books and writing articles for magazines as disparate as Harper's, GQ and Details.
Although reviewers effervesce about his books, they don't sell. "I sell between five and fifteen thousand," he says. Does it bother him? "Not much. Of course, I'd like to be read more. That's what you write for. But I'm glad I get to write. This house is paid for--I paid it off while I was working at the Citizen, because I hate debt--and I can make enough to put a few pounds of food on the table and pay my taxes." He laughs. "The magazine work is what I do so I can write the fucking books."
Why don't the books sell? "I don't want to sound arrogant, but I think they're too early," he says. "And maybe too harsh."
His next book is as harsh as it gets. Juarez--Crossing the Line will be published in January. With an opening essay by Noam Chomsky, it's composed of Bowden's words and the images of various Mexican photographers who risk their lives to record the abominations that happen from day to day there. We sit at a table and he shows me the photos, pictures of people horribly murdered by gangsters and cops, pictures of the slums people live in while working for a few dollars a day in factories owned by American companies. "Nobody knows about this. The papers here don't print it. This is how America 'liberates' other countries--like the Chinese liberated Tibet."
Does walking through such carnage frighten him? "Not really. I remember that two million people live in Juarez, and most of them wake up alive every morning."
Contact Barry Graham at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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