WAY OFF ABBEY'S ROAD
Chuck Bowden, the lizard king of Arizona authors, is shedding some skin this summer.
A Tucson-based essayist, bird watcher and former newspaperman, Bowden has made his literary nut writing books full of his own deep, dark rumblings about life in the Sonoran Desert.
His latest book, Trust Me: Charles Keating and the Missing Billions, expands Bowden's already expansive definition of the word "environment." Co-authored by Michael Binstein, who writes the syndicated "Washington Merry-Go-Round" newspaper column with veteran muckraker Jack Anderson, Trust Me is an arthroscopic examination of shamed financier Keating's mad dash through our pockets.
Though Bowden's back list is hardly a collection of polite, outdoor hikes--his last few books, especially, have been fever dreams filled with forced marches through dangerous territory--he is generally lumped as a nature writer, one of those dusty chaps who gets caught on cactus needles.
The nature writer he is lumped with most often is Ed Abbey, the brilliant Arizona novelist and social critic who died in 1989. Bowden has written often and eloquently about Abbey, author of such dirt-bag classics as Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang.
Bowden and Abbey were good friends and drinking buddies, but they were never the same guy. In many circles, Bowden is considered the heir to the literary legacy of his friend Abbey. Some critics of Bowden's work have gone so far as to suggest that Bowden has, at times, played the part of an Abbey wanna-be.
Some critics, of course, are full of shit.
Trust Me should break their knees. Aside from causing whiplash in anybody who still classifies Bowden as strictly a wilderness wanderer, it boots any and all Abbey-Bowden comparisons down an arroyo.
The desert beasts in this Chuck Bowden book (We did the book and I wrote it," says Bowden of his collaboration with Binstein. "He had a day job.") work in glass-faced office buildings.
Trust Me certainly broke a mold that literary wags had cast for Bowden. "Everybody . . . says, 'Wasn't this a stretch?'" he says. "Geez, Chuck, facts?'"
Sales of the new book, released a month ago, are already approaching 30,000. According to his agent, none of Bowden's previous eight books sold more than a few thousand copies.
Bowden isn't exactly in need of a breakout project. The Los Angeles Times has profiled him glowingly. His byline appears regularly in such high-profile (and high-contrast) forums as Arizona Highways and USA Today's op-ed page. The New York Times called him a "thrillingly good writer whose grandness of vision is only heightened by the bleak originality of his voice."
But Trust Me appears to be a breakout.
Jim Bishop, a veteran journalist based in Sedona, interviewed Bowden at length while Bishop was writing a so-far-unpublished biography of Ed Abbey. Whatever linkage the local literati may draw between Abbey and Bowden seems to fade with every new Bowden book, Bishop says.
"He [Bowden] is not living in the shade of Ed Abbey," says Bishop. "His feeling is that Abbey can take care of himself.
"Chuck's in metamorphosis, from butterfly to something larger. Maybe a pterodactyl."
@body:June is Bowden's favorite month. The winds haven't shifted yet, the afternoon storms and lightning shows are still parked somewhere south and east.
In June in Tucson, the snowbirds and students have mostly departed. The city's indigenous people are home alone, in the month when the sun is directly overhead and makes everything and everyone look flat and tan.
The author many consider to be the true voice of Arizona's wilderness lives in a postwar (I) bungalow in one of the dense-but-dusty residential tracts that surround the University of Arizona campus.
There is a small pickup parked in front. Inside the house, the floors are wall-to-wall carpetless concrete, and the furniture is minimal.
There are a stereo system, bookcases and a computer. Supporting himself mainly via freelance magazine writing, Bowden pounds his way through a new keyboard about once a year. "I'm the touch-typist from hell," says Bowden, who finishes many of his sentences with a raspy, smoker's cackle.
A wall of glass faces south into the yard, which Bowden has cultivated as his own open-air desert terrarium and city-bird sanctuary. Hoping to attract a cardinal, he's been putting out 60 pounds of feed per month.
Most authors agonize over dust-jacket portraits, trying to find the one unlikely shot that makes them look studly or smart. Bowden's flap photos are a small gallery of gruesome and goofy poses.
The pic Bowden picked for his book Mezcal is a long shot of the writer on a rock, wrapped in a sleeping bag, reading a book. The photo in the later Red Line makes him look like the unshaven, snaggletooth stranger murderers blame for their crimes. The ball cap he wears reads: "Rednecks for Social Responsibility."
In person, Bowden appears to be a tall morph of Neil Young and Robert Mitchum. In his writing, he has as fine a feel for the attractions of Tucson's butt-ugly Speedway Boulevard as he does for El Camino Diablo, a deadly stretch of wilderness closer to the border.
"I've been struck over the years by how people have attempted to make sense of me," says Bowden. "I never thought it would be very hard to do. I'm pretty plodding and obvious."
Dick Vonier, probably Bowden's best friend, describes his pal's life this way: "There's not a helluva lot to say. He has a truck and lives in a house in Tucson. He spends time in Mexico. He's a guy who gets up and sits at his computer. He sits and works."
It was with Vonier that Bowden first came across Charles H Keating Jr. That was in the late 1980s, while both were working as editors of City Magazine, a big-format journal they helped to found in Tucson. Keating was still running at almost full throttle in those days, and he had sent a few developments south down I-10 toward Tucson, catching the editors' attention.
Bowden and Vonier wanted a Keating piece for their magazine, and contacted Binstein, who had, by then, done a long Keating article for Regardie's magazine.
Documents changed hands, including damaging audit papers Binstein had somehow obtained from banking regulators.
Keating's law firms and PR flacks began muscling Bowden and Vonier almost immediately after they expressed an interest in the financier. The fledgling magazine's investors were, understandably, intimidated. Bowden and Vonier were, understandably, inspired.
"Magazines exist because people with more money than I do invest in them," says Bowden. "Those people were terrified of Charlie Keating. I didn't give a shit. I didn't care if he destroyed the magazine. It has no reason to exist if it didn't print that stuff. That's what it's for."
The magazine did not print that stuff.
But using the Binstein audit documents as blackmail leverage, the men from City Magazine did manage to gain several hours of access to Keating himself, including face-to-face interviews at American Continental Corporation headquarters on East Camelback Road, and during a long, liquid meal in the dining room at Keating's Crescent hotel.
One of the only significant interviews any journalists had with Keating during his time on top, it was, nonetheless, an interview with ground rules. The audit stuff was off-limits in the final story.
When the Keating issue hit the streets, critics read the story as a puff piece that went too easy on the old man. Keating bought 1,000 copies.
"I felt suicidal," says Bowden.
Not long after the Bowden-Vonier cover story on Keating (which New Times reprinted in August 1988), City Magazine died. But for Bowden, a fixation had been created.
"I realized my early ways of explaining Keating and dismissing him weren't gonna work," Bowden says. "I couldn't get rid of him by saying it's a Ponzi game, he's a crook. People who do Ponzi games don't spill $300 million into concrete building a hotel. They spill 30 cents into stock certificates for the hotel. They don't build it.
"The only hostile feelings I had for Charlie Keating was that he was trying to stop me to protect his interests. The harder he made it, the more I wanted to find out, the more I was convinced it was worth finding out."
At that point, though, Trust Me was still years away. Binstein would try to write a Keating book on his own, and Bowden would move to Mexico for a year.
By 1991, Bowden had returned to the First World, Keating had fallen and there was an immense paper trail to follow, with Binstein's help.
Bowden realized he could synchronize the movements of a huge cast of players in the Keating drama, including politicians, regulators, Charlie's troops--even porno king Larry Flynt, who had a part to play, as well.
"I went nuts," says Bowden. "I became obsessed. I could tell where everyone was and what they were doing."
@body:Chuck Bowden's reputation is built on such obsessions. According to one former wife, Bowden once jogged obsessively. Then it was long bicycle rides. Then it was long desert hikes in summer heat, dressed in a tee shirt, running shoes and gym shorts.
In his books, he has obsessed over Mexican drug gangsters (Red Line), the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson (Frog Mountain Blues), groundwater (Killing the Hidden Waters), his own past (Mezcal) and now Charles Keating.
The obsessions are sketched in often lyrical, sometimes knuckle-busting prose that occasionally drifts off into screed. Bowden doesn't like to call what he does essays. But they're not novels, either. His agent, Tim Schaffner, says Bowden's created his own genre.
The title Red Line comes from the mark on dashboard tachometers that indicates when engine parts start to fly through the hood. Chapters in the book begin and end with boldface quotes from the likes of Del Shannon, Adolf Hitler, Carl Sandburg and Charles Bronson.
Bowden has obsessed over sources, as well. These characters, all inspirations and/or mentors, appear and reappear in the books and magazine pieces. They are ecologists, crazed Spanish explorers, Ed Abbey, his dad.
Bowden, who turned 48 a couple of weeks ago, refers often to Alvar Nez Cabeza de Vaca, a lost wacko from Spain who wandered through the Sonoran Desert in the 1500s, became a kind of faith-healing god to the natives, but died in disgrace upon his return to his homeland. Bowden writes that Cabeza de Vaca was "the first European to have ever been an American or be in America. And he may well have been the last."
Ecologist H.T. Odum, author of the book Environment, Power and Society, launched some of Bowden's deepest thinking about energy and life.
Julian Hayden, a Tucson archaeologist who helped Bowden see the desert as a "wonderland," lives in a house off Speedway Boulevard that Bowden describes as a "kind of salon for Sonorans, aficionados of the Pinacate [Mountains], archaeologists, yarn spinners, writers, geologists, cranks, citizens, fellow fans of mescal."
Jude Bowden, who died in 1975, taught his son, Charles, that work was one's worth. The elder Bowden rolled his own cigarettes, so he wouldn't have to pay taxes on the smokes, and is memorialized in the dedication of Chuck Bowden's first book. "He never gave up or gave in," Chuck Bowden wrote. "But he gave all the same."
Jude also gave his son this advice: "With an education, if you can't make it in this country, you ought to get out of the gene pool."
@body:Chuck Bowden's off-the-page obsessions are equally colorful. In Tucson, he's got an old-fashioned, writerly reputation as an ass-grabbing bravo who can't be counted on to say the politically correct thing at all times--evidently, a trait dear to the residents of Tucson, the sandals-with-socks capital of the Southwest.
He's a boozing carnivore who smokes a ton of filter-free cigarettes every day. And, Christ, there have been a couple of busted marriages, lots of wild women, a child out of wedlock, fast driving and drugs. Did we mention the drinking? And the fucker likes Charlie Keating, too.
It's a persona Bowden has done little to discourage.
Bowden always carries a pen, sometimes three. His books can be brazenly autobiographical. Even Trust Me, Bowden's most reportorial work, incorporates both of its authors as characters. Bowden's not afraid of first person.
To all of these grievous charges, Bowden pleads no contest.
"I'm a failure at marriage," he says. "I have many grievances, but not against my ex-wives. I feel badly the marriages failed. I still do. I know it's my failure.
"I've disappeared into work. Ask any woman who's been with me."
(Ex-wife No. 1, Tucson attorney Zada Edgar Soto, wouldn't return repeated telephone calls from New Times. Ex-wife No. 2, Kathy Dannreuther, a Tucson librarian, spoke highly of Bowden in all regards, up to but not including the breakup of their marriage, which she wouldn't speak about at all. "He pays his bills on time," says Dannreuther. "His obligations are always met. He's pretty fanatical about that." Sandra Lanham, a Tucson pilot with whom Bowden has been linked for several years, runs an environmental flying service in Mexico. With some initial funding help from Bowden--We couldn't get any grant money for start-up," says Bowden. "Too crazy."--Lanham has flown research missions to count shore birds on the Gulf of Mexico, has counted sheep along Baja's Pacific coast and has tracked pintail ducks wearing radio collars. In all, Lanham flew 500 hours last year in her Cessna 182, a single-engine bomber she describes as "not a yuppie airplane," dropping onto and flying off of remote airstrips built for the drug trade in places that roads don't go. Bowden calls her a "latter-day Amelia Earhart." Lanham didn't want to talk about her relationship with Bowden. "Never get hooked up with a woman who flies," says Bowden. "Get a coke addict, they're cheaper.")
Still, there are plenty of folks in Tucson--Bowden admirers, too--whose eyebrows flap at his "prodigious philandering." Bowden calls himself a "frisky heterosexual." A close woman friend says he's irresistible to some women, "high maintenance" but a "babe." Pressed once to explain his behavior, Bowden told some colleagues, "Who am I to reverse 50 million years of primate evolution?"
His child, whose birth is documented near the opening of Red Line, is being raised by the boy's mom with help from Bowden's mom. Bowden pays child support. There's a picture of the boy displayed in the writer's living room. It is framed beside a colorful label from a mescal bottle and the only outline for Trust Me, actually a dozen or so words scribbled on a cocktail napkin.
Bowden's rep for boozing comes from the autobio books, one of which is named for the rasty, Mexican hangover-fuel mescal, and which are full of somewhat reverent references to beer, wine and whiskey.
It is an earned thirst, friends believe. Someone who spends so much time wandering through the Pinacates, or wandering inside paragraphs on the computer screen in the corner, earns long drinks whenever the drinks are available.
Also in the books are accounts of drug intake, especially of speed and reefer binges in younger days.
Bowden says the drinking is for winding down. Beer is the perfect accompaniment for the spicy, foreign cuisines he prefers; otherwise, Burgundy is his drug of choice. Strangely, his favorite setting for nightcap glasses of red wine is among the parents of undergrads who gather in a quiet, hotel-lobby sports pub near the university.
He claims he's a social pot smoker, that the cumulative tokes at parties over the last decade add up to no more than two doobs, total. He claims he last did cocaine almost ten years ago, in a bar in Washington, D.C., after an awards banquet at which he was the big awardee.
"I like what I do," he says. "I don't want cocaine. I want Burgundy. I'm too work-oriented to be a good user."
(Interestingly, a publisher recently sent Bowden to Colorado to try to pry a 1992 presidential-campaign book out of Hunter S. Thompson. When Bowden realized that he'd have to actually write the book for the addled godfather of gonzo, he split. "Junkies are boring," says Bowden of the experience.)
Bill Broyles, who has made several long desert hikes with Bowden, says, "Writing runs Bowden's life. He has a monster inside that drives him, but I've never seen him have any problem with alcohol, never seen him drunk, never seen him drink to kill time. I know for a fact he goes weeks on end without a drink or smoke."
@body:Readers of Bowden's autobiographical works, full as they are of tales of debauchery (does he ever meet a woman who is not buxom?), may be prone to judge him a turd.
But he has a lot of friends who call him a "moralist" and a "60s idealist." For all of his alleged brooding intensity, Bowden is a good guy to be around. Funny and smart and a born educator and storyteller, he can blaze a conversation through an amazing array of topics. Once an audience realizes he's not a burned-out tumbleweed, Bowden can be a dazzling public speaker.
"He's become kind of a personal guru," says co-author Binstein. "Chuck has a Velcro quality. People stick to him. I stuck to him.
"He's a fucking genius they keep in the attic."
Bowden courted his second wife by showing up on her doorstep dressed in black, carrying a six-pack. "He would want to talk about Plato and Aristophanes, and I'd have a headache by the time he left," says librarian Dannreuther. "He can be very intimidating in that way."
Bill Broyles, a high school teacher and freelance writer when he's not out stomping in the desert with Bowden, says, "Most people probably wouldn't enjoy hiking with him. He's too strong, too motivated, too driven. Not only is he indefatigable--the man is tireless, he doesn't know when to stop--he carries on a graduate-seminar conversation the whole way.
"He's not in it to satisfy or bloat his own ego. If you go into a conversation to challenge or outwit him, you may be in deep sand. He really is the most intellectually curious person I've ever met."
There is no hidden agenda with Bowden, says Broyles.
"If you've seen his house, money isn't it," he says. "If you've seen his truck and the way he dresses, status isn't it. What it is is an insatiable, unquenchable thirst to learn more about the world and about people. Once you realize that, you're home free."
As for Bowden's reputation around town as the grouchy, misanthropic punk who doesn't take his designated role as leader of the local ecological-tea-dance society quite seriously enough--well, Bowden doesn't think the green-crowd members have enough fun. The "monks and nuns of nature," he calls them.
"Which, if you read Abbey, was one of his constant points," says Bowden. "For God's sake, have a good time while you're saving the world.'"
@body:So Chuck Bowden, like Ed Abbey before him, tries to have a good time while saving the world.
Gentle mesquite-huggers who might need further convincing of Bowden's commitment to the movement might be interested in his latest salvation project, a picture book titled The Secret Forest, which celebrates a spike of near-tropical vegetation near Alamos, Sonora, Mexico, about eight hours by car south of Nogales.
The forest is gradually being converted into grazing land for cattle. Bowden wrote the book to try to save the area, which is full of winter-flowering flora.
"I wrote it as propaganda," says Bowden of The Secret Forest, which was produced in approximately the same time frame as was Trust Me. "Partly, I guess it was therapy for me. I've written so many stories, more than the world ever wanted to know, about environmental destruction. Let's face it, you get tired of the world ending. I thought, 'Why not take some of that money you've ripped off and spend it to just do something?'"
Bowden, an addict of Mexico, left Tucson for that country in 1990, intending to spend a year in the Sierra Madre, swilling beer, swinging in a hammock and collecting orchids. Instead, he has produced a book for an audience of one--whichever Mexican official will help him save his secret forest from the vaqueros who blade botany.
In a way, the book (published by University of New Mexico Press) is a vanity project. Bowden had to assemble sponsorship to pay for the costly color printing of Jack Dykinga's photos of the forest. Bowden pitched the project to Dykinga, a Pulitzer Prize winner, by telling him: "I won't pay you a dime, you won't get a penny for expenses, and if there's any profits, we'll give em all away."
There are already pictures in the book that can't be duplicated, because some of the land has been cleared and ruined.
"I want to go back--say I'm alive in 20 years--I want to go back there and have a Tecate under a tree that exists because of something I did," says Bowden.
The next Bowden books down the chute are to be a one-two combo titled Blood Orchid and Lola. The subject of the first book, Bowden says, is "how we lost the Cold War and what it did to us." (Questioned by another reporter about this thesis, Bowden answered, "I was born in a country that had the Bill of Rights, and I'll die in one where you have to piss in a cup to get a menial job.")
Lola, Bowden says, is about sex.
@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."
@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.
@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.
Dick Vonier and David Mitchell were running the Citizen newsroom in those days, and they somehow convinced upper management to take a chance on the tall guy who wrote. Hired to produce oddball "brights" for the afternoon newspaper, Bowden quickly insinuated himself into harder news slots.
"He didn't know shit about journalism, couldn't write an obit if he tried, but it didn't matter. He had real talent," says Mitchell, city editor at the time, who now lives in Santa Fe. "I was impressed with the writing, and that's all I really gave a damn about. You can hire a leg man anywhere, but to find someone who can put information into usable form, and, more than that, a poetic form, and still be usable as journalism, is a rare thing."
Bowden says that all he knew about journalism at the time he had learned from A Child of the Century, Ben Hecht's rollicking account of Chicago's newspaper heyday. "I thought that was what every newspaper was like," says Bowden of Hecht's vivid descriptions of wily, hard-living reporters. "I thought it was normative behavior. I get on the newspaper and it was like a quilting bee. Not all of it, but a lot of it."
Hired as a "fluff" writer at the Citizen, Bowden did what he could to stir up the bees, and eventually became the newspaper's "takeout" writer. He trekked El Camino Diablo with illegals (on his own time--the newspaper thought the assignment was too dangerous to officially sanction), and spent a year tracking Tucson's sexual-abuse cases. He drank with striking miners for stories and turned in expense-account vouchers marked only "booze"--and refused to change them when management cracked down, chiefly because he hadn't charged the newspaper for any of his own beer.
A trained historian, Bowden brought a new vocabulary to the Citizen. His writing broke rules. His ambitious leg work (one editor dubbed Bowden "Doctor Death" because of the writer's willingness to bolt for the scene of the latest grisly crime) broke stories. Predictably, the newsroom was just about split on his wild-ass style.
"What he was doing didn't fit their narrow definition of newspaper journalism," says Citizen alum Larry Cheek of the anti-Bowden faction. Now a successful freelance writer and author, Cheek places himself solidly in the pro-Bowden camp at the newspaper. "Bowden hadn't paid his dues, hadn't gone to journalism school. He was this atomic bomb that landed in the middle of us."
But Bowden's work was recognized almost immediately by officials of the Gannett newspaper chain, owner of the Citizen. He also won Arizona Press Club's top honor, the Virg Hill Award. A preliminary Pulitzer Prize committee picked his work to win one year, but the next committee down the line flopped an entry in from another category and robbed Bowden of the big award.
Bowden, who says he hadn't read a newspaper in years (too boring") when the time came to work for one, applied at the Tucson Citizen one day because his bankroll was down to $14 and he wanted to work long enough to buy a custom racing bike, long-distance rides being his obsession of that moment. He left a few years later, with his house paid off and his writing reputation launched. He quit, he says, because Gannett was gutting the paper by eliminating reporting jobs.
One of his favorite memories of the newspaper came on his first day on the job, when he was sitting around the newsroom waiting for someone to tell him what to do.
"Some old codger on the copy desk--and they're all working on either repairing their liver or making it last a little longer--turns to me and says, 'Where the fuck is the crash-and-burn on the two lettuce heads?'
"I didn't know what it meant, but I knew it wasn't gonna be polite," he says. "I thought, 'This is gonna be better than I thought.'"
@body:It was during this career stage that Bowden met Ed Abbey.
"The first time I met him, I was out at his house to interview a guest of his for the local paper," Bowden wrote after Abbey's death. "I was leery of meeting him, kind of like disturbing a national monument. So I tapped timidly on the door. He opened it up, and instantly thrust a copy of my first book into my hands--a text that had fallen dead from press and taken almost ten years to sell 2,000 copies. He asked if I would autograph it and went on and on about its wonders. So he may have had pretty bad literary taste, but he was one of the kindest men I have ever known.
"We became friends."
Says Bowden today: "Honest to God, I don't remember ever having a conversation in my life with Ed Abbey about the environment, ecology, anything. Never about what he wrote or I wrote. We'd sit and talk about books and politics and God knows what all.
"I think that's what I liked about him. He was a very intelligent guy with, let's say, an independent way of seeing things.
"Hell, people like that wake you up. We'd meet in crummy cafes, drink coffee and butt heads."
Desierto's dedication lists Abbey's birth and death dates, "R.I.P." and the phrase "But I doubt it." Bowden says there is a group of Abbey friends that doesn't believe he's all gone.
"All of us confess to being in a bar and thinking we catch him out of the corner of our eye, guzzling a longneck," says Bowden. "I don't know what to make of it, because none of us are spiritual people. But it's like the guy had a kind of quality of life that in some sense, you don't think it stops. He's out there haunting us somewhere.
"I guess we just miss the laughs."
A few weeks before he died, Abbey inscribed a book to Bowden: to "a fellow traveler in this fool's journey out of the dark, through the light, and into the unknown." Abbey, whose wife wouldn't return telephone calls from New Times, is buried somewhere in the desert, reportedly under a sign that reads, "No comment."
Bowden says he got the idea for City Magazine at a funeral in the Santa Catalina foothills, toward the end of his run at the Citizen. An old "desert rat" had died, and the turnout sort of mirrored the populace from Bowden's Speedway-cruising days. Indians, Mexicans, desert rats, townies. Maybe there still is a town here, he thought. Bowden enlisted Vonier, and the two sketched out the whole project in two hours.
Investors were lined up, and City Magazine debuted with an issue that suggested selling Phoenix to North Dakota for $1. Subsequent monthly installments captured a time and a place--Tucson at the tail end of the last big bender--but the subscriber base (though rich and well-educated) never made it to 10,000. Bowden and Vonier had figured the break-even point at 20,000, so the thing folded in less than three years.
But not before Bowden got his first pass at Trust Me's subject.
"They didn't teach you in Chicago that it's not whether you win or you lose," says Bowden. "They teach you nice guys finish last.
"By the time I ran into Keating, I already knew him."
Bowden's book is probably how Keating will be remembered in 100 years. By then the savings-and-loan crisis will be a footnote in history books, and Keating's place in it will be a comma. Historians will have only Trust Me to tell them of the depths to which guys like Keating, Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky took us. The sordid money manipulation of "casino capitalism," the chilling corporate culture inside Keating's American Continental Corporation, Keating's priggy, fascistic attempts at managing America's morality--it's all there.
One draft, toward the end of the writing process, had 475 footnotes. Bowden cut 60,000 words in his last revision. Last year, a Tucson newspaper reported that Bowden received a million-dollar advance to do the book.
"I got 35 grand and spent 45 grand," says Bowden. "I worked 15 fucking months and bankrupted myself. Any book worth doing will bankrupt you."
Bowden continues to follow Keating, and has sent messages to him through Stephen Neal, the inmate's attorney. (Several weeks ago, Neal told New Times he would ask Keating about the book and about Bowden, but Neal failed to call back, and wouldn't return follow-up telephone messages. A phone message left for Keating at a federal prison near Tucson was unreturned.)
Bowden's favorite passage in the book is the thrilling account of the Phoenician resort's opening, when Keating, juiced on whatever it feels like to complete a $300 million monument to yourself, grabs one of his grandkids and barrels down the Phoenician's water slide with his wallet still in the pants pocket of his business suit.
"Everything that appalls you about him and attracts you to him comes in about six seconds," Bowden says of the moment. "There's a part of me that always wants him to go down the water slide, and a part of me that thinks, 'The motherfucker's going down the slide I paid for.'
"It's the same feeling you have when you see a fighter pilot do something crazy with a plane. You're envious, then you realize, 'The son of a bitch is doing that with my plane! He's supposed to be really serious, not cutting up with an F-15!'
"The guy [Keating] was more alive than almost anyone I've met. I confess to this.
"For me, Charlie was worth the time.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.