Charles Bowden, 1945 – 2014

In the last week Orion has lost two good friends, Ann Zwinger and Charles Bowden. Both of them influenced our thinking about nature and environment—albeit in very different ways.

Writing is a precarious way to make a living at best, and sometimes it gets just plain dumb. Among the dumbest things I ever heard was what a New York agent once said about author Charles Bowden, who died on August 30 from a yet-unidentified, sudden illness.

At the time of the aforementioned stupidity, I had known Bowden about six months. We’d met over the phone when mine rang in Prescott, Arizona, one morning soon after publication of my 1986 book La Frontera. “Weisman?” growled a basso profundo. “Chuck Bowden here. You know you just wrote the best goddam book about the border ever.” Steamrolling over my attempted thanks, for the next half hour he parsed my book in a stream of vocabulary so rich I felt incoherent by comparison.

At a symposium this summer in Alaska, Luis Alberto Urrea told me practically the identical story. His own call from Bowden awoke him at dawn; Chuck had stayed up all night reading Urrea’s 1993 book Across the Wire. But by then I’d heard it often. A dumbstruck young reporter named Luke Turf once described staggering from bed to see who was pounding on his door at 7:00 a.m. An outsized, rangy, sandy-haired guy in denim, his face craggy as a cliff, was waving Turf’s Tucson Citizen story about brutalized jailed illegal immigrants, yelling that he’d gotten it right. Turf, who’d just moved to town, had no idea how Bowden had found him.

The list goes on. And each of us felt not merely complimented, but anointed: One of the best around had just affirmed our worthiness as writers by acknowledging us as his colleagues. Which was why what Chuck told me that day in 1987 was so completely ridiculous.

We were in his office at City Magazine, a publication as outsized as its editor—him. While covering the collision of splendor and seaminess in the Southwest as a Tucson Citizen reporter himself, Chuck had learned to wield his commanding physical presence to disarm interview subjects, and he wanted his magazine, which measured 11” x 14”, to be the biggest thing on the newsstand. At age forty, after years of newspaper work and two haunting books, Killing the Hidden Waters and Frog Mountain Blues, a widening circle of western literati were already referring to him by the l-word: legend. When he was approached to head a new Tucson magazine, he accepted on one condition: no editorial meddling by the owners.

It was a deal that for two years produced some of America’s finest local journalism, until the day they asked him to ease up on some of their biggest advertisers—golf courses, if memory serves, although by then many sanctioned perps like developers had been nailed in City Magazine’s crosshairs. That same afternoon, Bowden walked out. Two issues later, the magazine folded.

On the occasion I’m referring to, I’d come because Chuck was excerpting a portion from La Frontera, in which a prominent Nogales, Arizona, merchant gloated about favors exacted from female Mexican customers in exchange for debt forgiveness. I suspected that Chuck was hoping we’d both get sued and reap the ensuing publicity.

We talked about the years I’d lived in Mexico. “I need to spend more time there,” he kept saying. Eventually and memorably he would, and would write an astonishing number of seething, relentless books about it. But that day he confessed that he was having trouble getting any visibility beyond the immediate region. His own two books had been published by southwestern university presses with predictable limited distribution, and it looked like his next, Blue Desert, would be relegated to the same.

“Ed Abbey had me send it to a New York agent. The agent called it ‘bad Edward Abbey.’”

Everyone who knew Abbey knew that Killing the Hidden Waters was one of his favorite books, and Bowden one of his favorite authors. Both incomparably original, all they had in common was the land each revered and wrote about, and mutual admiration. That Charles Bowden’s prose struck some agent as remotely similar to Edward Abby’s reflected the basest of Manhattan publishing sensibilities, deadened or deluded by what passed there for literary fashion.

A couple of books later, someone at WW Norton & Company would do right by Bowden. What followed was a torrent of work from major publishers over the last quarter-century that exalted the rapture of the southwestern U.S. and northwestern Mexico, even as it exhumed appalling numbers of tortured bodies strewn there. But labeling Charles Bowden a western writer would be as confining and misleading as branding William Faulkner a southern writer. Faulkner set his books in the South he knew best, to tell universal stories. Bowden embraced the desert as hard as anyone possibly could, yet his power was not just in evoking a place, but our times. Harper’s, Esquire, and GQ didn’t use him continually because he was a regionalist—nor was that why this magazine gave him the 2010 Orion Book Award (for Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing).

At his best, Bowden ranked among the greatest American nonfiction writers of my time. I don’t say that lightly, especially about someone whose entire oeuvre was in first-person: too many writers use it because it’s easiest to write in the person in which we live—I—or because they’re narcissists. Chuck did it because it worked: a gourmand and gourmet cook, a prolific gardener, at times a (self-confessed, in print) Lothario, he combined a boundless appetite for engagement with an uncommon gift for eloquence and a predilection for rawness, to portray things far bigger than himself. Even when he’d obsessively repeat himself in fury over the wreckage of places he loved, he could make it imaginatively new each time. Sentence for sentence, his was one of the strongest voices ever put to paper that I know.

Nearly every obituary has included quotes from his books, but I’m resisting that here, because his words properly belong in the context where he so carefully placed them, draft after draft. Do him justice, and do yourself a favor, by revisiting his work or discovering it, if you haven’t before. Start anywhere—the informal trilogy of Desierto, Blood Orchid, and Blues for Cannibals, which can be read in no particular order, or any of his incandescent books set in Ciudad Juárez, culminating in Murder City.

Should you aspire to write yourself, absolutely do read him, but don’t try to imitate him. You can’t. No one could. But learn from his fearless commitment to saying exactly what needed to be said… Let me rephrase that: Chuck Bowden wasn’t fearless. He was scared plenty—but he had the courage to never turn away, regardless.

Over the years, I’d sometimes crash on his couch when I came through Tucson—me and every other writer. Then, while writing my book The World Without Us, I ended up living just a couple of blocks away. Chuck had just finished what some call his magnum opus, Down By the River, set in El Paso and Juárez, and was already plotting his next. Nights on his back porch, overlooking his beloved cacti collection, which included a huge cereus vine whose dinner-plate-sized flowers only bloomed one night a year, we’d drink ourselves to the bottom of many wine bottles, shuddering over monstrous things we’d covered, mulling how to describe the unspeakable. I’d walk home on the hot streets inspired by his sheer existence. He would fade away reading a cookbook—“my idea of pornography,” he’d say—and then be up before dawn to brew first an espresso, then more trouble with the English language.

Damn it, I miss him. Everyone who knew him does. But there’s his indelible body of work to remind us why we do, and why we carry on.

Alan Weisman’s latest book Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?, now in 15 foreign editions, was a finalist for the 2014 Orion Book Award. His book The World Without Us, an international bestseller translated into 34 languages, was a 2008 finalist.

Comments

  1. HI Allan,
    I’m sorry for your loss. Bowden sounds like he was an incredible life force in addition to being an extraordinary writer. I confess, I’ve never read his work, but your vividly rendered elegy to your friend has inspired me to do so. Thank you. Sharon

  2. I first met Chuck Bowden on September 18, 1989, 25 years ago. This is almost half my lifetime ago. He was my friend, and I miss him very much.

    While we had been out of touch the past few years (busy lives on both sides, and we had both left our beloved Tucson), I still thought of him every single day. I excitedly awaited every single new bit of writing that he published, and likely have one of the larger hoards of his writing anywhere–a small, slightly embarrassing obsession. His stunning body of work remains as a monument to a great man, one who stood up for the downtrodden, and who bore witness for those who couldn’t speak for themselves. And I don’t mean just the poor and the disenfranchised, but also the animals and the plants. None of the many things on the web have come even close to doing justice to the man. They focus on the narco stuff, but he was a kind and generous and decent human being, and someone who worked hard and successfully to protect vast swaths of ground in the Southwest and in Mexico. He was incredibly giving, and encouraged a huge herd of writers and artists to make their own marks on the world. He had a number of friends whom he cared for very deeply.

    And as for the drug world, well, he cared about Juarez and Mexico and what was happening there when no one else did–a demonstration of the very deep strength of character and strong sense of morality that were within him. He wanted to bear witness—it was his career and his life—and he did it so very well.

    His talent was unique, his grasp of the world prodigious. He somehow found a way to turn nonfiction into poetry, something I’m still trying to unravel and figure out and understand exactly how he did it.

    He ran a sort of informal literary salon on his back porch for years. People would come over, mostly other writers and journalists, and Chuck would talk, and smoke, and drink wine as the desert sun faded into darkness. What a prodigious intellect this man had. People just wanted to be near him. I think they felt that simply being near such greatness made them feel better about their own lives, and that there was hope that they too could go out into the world and slay dragons.

    He was the only true genius I have ever known.

    My dear friend the writer Laurie Notaro, who also knew Chuck, said: “It’s like a superhero died.”

    In early August I reached out and emailed Chuck, asking him how he was doing. He responded (lower case as always): “i’m fine. and on the move.”

    That was his last email to me. I assumed he was roaring off on another assignment. Apparently he was…

    I have always believed that as long as Chuck Bowden still walked the Earth, there was hope for us and for the world. Now that he’s gone, I shudder to think of the future. But his writing, in which he shared his soul and his unique insight, is a gift to each of us. It is a roadmap of not only who we are today, but a path forward to who we can perhaps become in that distant place we call the future. If we just pay attention.

  3. I firmly believe Charles Bowden is the greatest non-fiction writer the American Southwest has yet produced. Better than Abbey. Better than Van Dyke, Austin, Stegner, Reisner, Foreman, and Terry Tempest Williams. His books are stronger, deeper, more interesting, difficult, and frustrating than theirs. In the extended and severe elegy Bowden has constructed for Sonora, we can see the Sonoran desert and the human societies within it more clearly and unflinchingly than almost anyone before him has allowed us to see— a major accomplishment for which future generations will surely become increasingly grateful.

    * * *

    An Elegy for Charles Bowden

    I drag my pillow
    and a quilt
    and a blow-p mattress

    out to the deck
    where dappled light
    can cover me

    and the cool air
    can whisper in my ear.
    No cloud in the sky.

    Now and then a crow
    comments loudly.
    High in the aspens

    the wind shimmers.
    I doze and live
    in my life— amazed.

    – Angel Fire, NM – September 2014

  4. The only letter I ever wrote to an author went to Charles Bowden. I was moved to write him a note of thanks after I read Blue Desert. I lived in Tucson at the time, and that book moved me like nothing I had read about the Southwest. He wrote back, a thoughtful letter thanking me for thanking him. I am sad to hear of his death, and am grateful for the legacy of the words he left to move and motivate future readers and activists.

  5. grateful for this eloquent sharing, Alan Weisman, and to everyone else’s detailed comments. Forming a way to pay homage to a beloved writer.

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