Longform

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."
@rule:
@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."

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Dave Walker