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.