The endless search for Charles Bowden

A longtime Bowden reader remembers the complicated author through two new books.

 

Charles Bowden in his truck in Plano, Texas, 1998.
© Eugene Richards / Courtesy of UT Press

Even now, six years after Charles Bowden died, I still roam around bookstores, hoping I missed an old title of his, or wondering if an editor has unearthed a long-lost manuscript. Ever since I first encountered Bowden’s dark and deeply personal reporting about the Southwestern desert and the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands almost 20 years ago, his writing has ensorcelled me.

I’m not the only one aching for more of his insights and experiences. The University of Texas Press, the Charles Clyde Bowden Literary Trust and the Lannan Foundation created the Charles Bowden Publishing Project, whose goal is threefold: re-releasing the author’s out-of-print books, publishing three new manuscripts uncovered after his death, and commissioning new books about him. So when a package arrived last year — delivering America’s Most Alarming Writer: Essays on the Life and Work of Charles Bowden and Bowden’s own Dakotah: The Return of the Future — I spent a sleepless night, plowing through the essays and Bowden’s own words. 

Those pages reminded me how much words and memories matter, how complicated it is to mourn, and why we need to be honest about our heroes. 

My father died the year before Bowden. Our relationship was a complicated one, and his final words to me over the phone, before going into surgery I didn’t expect him to survive, were inscrutable at best, and at worst, cruel. Months after his death, I scoured his white Toyota pickup truck, which my mom had passed along to me, convinced that a message was hidden inside, one that would set his soul to rest within my heart. I flipped up the seats and pulled out every tool and zip tie, draping his raincoat around my shoulders, checking out the double sets of Coleman camping silverware. Finally, I popped open an ancient tobacco tin, hoping it held a clue. 

But it didn’t — just a roll of toilet paper.

I never met Bowden in person. We exchanged emails over the course of a few years — short messages about everything from writing to the bird species in his backyard. But I remember the first time I read his words. Working as a cocktail waitress in Albuquerque, I was transitioning between two careers and renting a room from a fisheries biologist. When the biologist learned I’d never heard of Bowden, he slapped Blood Orchid: An Unnatural History of America into my hands. Within pages, I was mad for Bowden’s style. His ferocity and pace of storytelling inspired me — as it did countless other journalists — to not shy away from infusing reportage with emotion. I frequently re-watch an interview he did with the radio producer Scott Carrier, in which he speaks of the moral obligation of the writer. He calls it a crime, a sin, to use that gift to write “advertising jingles” instead of the truth about the world around us.

“Look, you have a gift, life is precious,” Bowden told Carrier. “Eventually you die, and all you’re going to have to show for it is your work.”

“It’s easy to make a living telling the people in control they’re right,” he told Carrier, adding, “Look, you have a gift, life is precious. Eventually you die, and all you’re going to have to show for it is your work.”

In America’s Most Alarming Writer, the best essays are those that don’t idolize Bowden or indulge our compulsion to honor the dead. Arizona Daily Star reporter Tony Davis, for example, writes about arguing with Bowden when they were fellow reporters in the 1980s, even as he looked up to him. Davis describes him as “one part poet, one part novelist, one part conservationist, one part dirt-digger, one part bottom-feeder, scraping literary insights from the dregs of the earth.” Leslie Marmon Silko deconstructs his coverage of the border and violence, suggesting that he likely embellished some of the dangers he described, while Judy Nolte Temple writes about his frequent objectification of women's bodies. Molly Molloy, Bowden's partner, has a heartbreaking essay that will resonate with anyone who’s walked behind a loved one. And both Molloy and Bowden’s ex-partner Mary Martha Miles also describe editing his work, complicating the idea of his intrepid life by acknowledging their labor. 

Meanwhile, Dakotah’s chapters jump around from Bowden’s reflections on his family to his ruminations on Lewis and Clark, the forced migrations of Sioux tribes across America’s “heartland,” even Daniel Boone. The slim book fails to offer a full picture of any one story, and I finished it feeling low. So I re-read his classics, like Down by the River and Killing the Hidden Waters, seeking the growling, confident voice I wanted to hear. 

Trying to cast the dead as either heroes or demons often leaves one empty-handed, like I was when I popped open my dad’s old tobacco tin. Wending my way through the pile of Bowden’s books reminded me that a person’s final words are rarely definitive. Seeking the truth means looking for messages in the right places. And as Bowden taught his many admirers, seeking the truth also demands we open our hearts, interrogate our own assumptions — and acknowledge that people are always more complicated, terrible and lovely than the characters we craft on paper.

Laura Paskus works for New Mexico PBS and is working on an investigative project in collaboration with FRONTLINE. Her book At the Precipice: New Mexico’s Changing Climate, is forthcoming from UNM Press. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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