Thursday, November 22, 2007

Chuck and me

As I’ve said on several occasions, I think Charles Bowden is one of the best writers working today. I don’t know you, reader, so am curious to know if you have ever heard of him? I would guess not. Bowden is all over the place and so are his books. Most are found in either the environmental section of the book store, or in crime. I don’t know about you, reader, but those are not aisles I usually frequent.

Most likely. I only know about Bowden because I lived in Tucson where he is a well-known local writer. But it’s remotely possible I would have noticed him anyway. He’s a regular contributor to Harper’s Magazine, which I read cover-to-cover each month so I would have read him there. Would that have led me to go out and buy his books? Probably not.

I first came across his work when I was writing about water issues in the southwest. Bowden had written book called Killing the Hidden Waters which, although slim, is a definitive work on the subject.

Later, I worked at the same newspaper where he had been a reporter. By that time I had read Blue Desert and Desierto, both of which contain a lot of great writing, so I was interested in the work he had done at the paper. Nothing in those books prepared me for what I was to find when I read his clip file. Sitting in that library, reading those words, was a harrowing literary experience similar to getting punched in the stomach repeatedly only much more unpleasant. If you’ve ever wondered what woul happen if you put one of the world’s greatest word smiths on the sex crime beat, I can tell you from experience that you probably don’t want to know. There are a lot of soul sickening facts in them there clips.

Bowden writes about those days in Blues for Cannibals. Even at that great distance, it’s still one of the most powerful stories I have ever come across and I think it’s obligatory reading if you want to understand where Bowden got his depth. Hell, it should be obligatory reading for any number of reasons. And it’s also interesting that it was during this time that Bowden went on long desert walks and wrote the essays that would end up in Blue Desert and other early works.

I had plenty of opportunities to meet Chuck, but never did. When I lived in Tucson we had mutual friends at the newspaper and mutual interests about the desert and border. I was writing about those things and Bowden is God on the subject. People often encouraged me to call him up and ask about various issues, but I never did. I would have liked to have got to know him personally, but asking him to tell me about NAFTA would have just been a pretext to meet a famous person and I am not the fan-boy type.

But that combination of local hero, near colleague and personal connection, however slight, does make me question my objectivity when it come to commenting on the quality of his writing. We often fail to see the flaws in those we feel close to, including distant celebrities. Or we exaggerate their good qualities.

Although Bowden’s writing abilities are not exactly trumpeted far and wide, he is well-respected by those who read him. William Langewiesche, writing in the New York Times Book Review, does a good job of explaining his appeal:

Is ''Down by the River'' an exposé, a history, a biography, a memoir, an adventure story, a philosophical musing? It is all of those things, reportage on the highest level, and it moves between the categories without hesitation or apology. It is a sort of poetry, too. When Bowden lets loose, he writes as if in a fever...

The result is certainly much more than a crime story: it is a mature, deeply felt exploration of the hidden connections binding two very different parts of North America, as well as of the ties that bind a family. The narrative is masterly...

Who else writes like that? Is the process instinctive or calculated? Whatever his method, the images and rhythms are beautifully chosen. Indeed, how better could anyone convey the textures of the shadow world? Bowden calls himself a reporter, and in a pure sense of the word he really is one. He is also an authentic talent. Even at his most stylistically extreme, he does not seem strained or self-indulgent...

Yes. Highest level reporting. Moves between categories. Poetry. Fever. Hidden Connections. Masterly. Stylistically extreme. Those are apt descriptions of Bowden's work.

But you, reader, may feel differently? It’s not uncommon to find that Bowden’s books hang together by the slimmest of narrative threads. Most of them are collections of essays, many written on assignment, that have some level, often difficult to discern, of thematic consistency. Blood Orchid is a very good example of how Bowden may impose a unifying theme long after the individual parts have been written. Nevertheless, for that kind of thing to work, there must be an underlying thematic constancy. That underlying constancy, and its nature, is what elevates Bowden as a whole so far above the parts. That, and the incredible writing talent he displays at the sentence and paragraph levels.

And beyond writing ability, you have to give him credit as a reporter for going far, far deeper into the Mexican drug trade and living to write so well about it. Down by the River is one of the scariest books you could ever read.