Eulogy for a Visionary: On the Grim Narrative Introspection of Charles Bowden

Leath Tonino Considers His Brief Correspondence with the Author of Murder City

My first thought: Murder City, solid title.

It was 2011 and I was scraping by in San Francisco, spending hours at the public library, tinkering with writing projects, browsing the stacks during breaks. The name on the book’s spine—Charles Bowden—was familiar yet unfamiliar; essayist Rebecca Solnit, a neighbor with whom I’d recently taken a long walk, had referenced Bowden, telling me that “he could make your skin crawl by describing a Q-tips factory.” Uncertain what that meant, but eager to learn, I slipped Murder City from the shelf, intending to start it when I got home, sip some vodka, have myself a relaxed Friday evening.

Little did I know that Bowden, a veteran investigative reporter from the South-west, author of twenty-five-plus books about polluted rivers, crooks in silk suits, flies swarming over pooled blood, collapsing communities, contract killers, rattlesnakes, and desire, had a slightly different plan. In a 2010 NPR interview, he summarized his approach to crafting stories on the page: “My dream is to invite a reader into a room and pour a nice cup of tea . . . and then nail the door shut.”

I read until 6 am, the sole time in my life that I’ve gone cover to cover in a single sitting, rarely stopping to pee or, for that matter, lift my drink. Indeed, the door was nailed shut, and somehow the door of my understanding was flung wide open to Bowden’s core argument: Murder City is Juarez, a metropolis where the brutality of Mexican drug cartels, NAFTA-induced poverty, government corruption, and much else have combined to form a society of “hyper-violence,” but it is simultaneously “the laboratory of our future,” a kind of negative potential embedded in every modern metropolis, a potential for the failure of infrastructure, institutions, order, and meaning.

Forget Q-tips. As pressures mount—global climate derangement, global predatory capitalism, global refugee crises—the American Empire will inevitably confront the prophecy that is Juarez.

After that murderous binge—ghastly, illuminating, exhausting—I hobbled to the library and searched the catalogue for more Bowden. And more Bowden. And more Bowden. Turns out he began as a historian, then got pulled into reporting on Tucson sex crimes, into border atrocities, and repeatedly (despite these grim obsessions, this ethical obligation to document the undocumented) into his childhood fascination with flora, fauna, and the glory and mystery of harsh, arid ecosystems. Bowden’s work consistently concerns itself with the possibility of dwelling responsibly and tranquilly on earth; however, the majority of his sentences declare, either implicitly or explicitly, that discussing the human–environment relationship forces the pen (or cursor) toward grit, darkness, the screaming edge of normalcy.

Within a year, I had read everything at the Main Branch and was hunting obscure texts via interlibrary loan. My studies snowballed from there—introductions, lectures posted to YouTube, blurbs. (On the jacket of Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway, about fourteen Mexican migrants who died crossing the Sonoran Desert into Arizona, his hard-bitten, zero-bullshit style is on display: “We gotta talk. Now.”) Bowden’s prose—bleak, fierce, surreal like a swirling sandstorm, like an endlessly ramifying arroyo—provided for me, in its rejection of facile theses and clear-cut answers, an honest mapping of our contemporary predicament. He became a guide to twenty-first-century chaos, a guide who, as Robert Frost famously phrased it, “only has at heart your getting lost.”

I was lost. I was orienteering. I was reading. I was in my comfy room, the door locked tight with sixteen-penny nails. By winter of 2013, there was nothing left to do besides compose a letter and send it to the man himself.

An email, actually. An embarrassingly earnest four paragraphs of gratitude. It was the classic situation—rookie writer discovers inspiration and solace of a sort (curious how being alert to the dire is preferable to being asleep with ignorance and delusion) in the words of a crusty, seasoned elder. I attached a rough poem, “Reading Murder City in One Sitting,” and concluded by inquiring if I might visit for an interview down the line. Chuck replied in hasty lowercase, sooner than expected: “eventually your kind note found me in my lair . . . and sure somewhere down the line you can waste your time on an interview if you wish.”

Thus was born a minimalist correspondence—twelve emails, seven of them my own, none particularly profound. Among other topics (botany, wine, slowness), our mutual love of the class Aves frequently came to the fore. I’d offer a family of red-tailed hawks whose nest I was monitoring at the periphery of a playground in San Francisco; he’d counter with something like, “i am incompetent and hopeless . . . i just clocked 2400 miles to and from the texas coast and the lower rio grande . . . periodically i need a roseate spoonbill.” J. A. Baker’s talon-torn book The Peregrine was a common touchstone, as was a belief (unspoken) in the basic value of rambling outdoors, paying close attention to the dirt, the clouds, and the in-between.

On September 1, 2014, following a backpacking trip in the trail-less High Sierra wilderness, I wrote Chuck to confirm the logistics of our impending interview (a magazine editor had accepted my pitch) and briefly mentioned the gut-level shock—a churn of compassion and anger—that I’d felt descending to the Central Valley’s commercial sprawl, Big Ag monocropping, severe wealth disparities, and relentless hot haze: “The towns and people are not well, and I sincerely hope that’s not some pretentious yuppie in me saying that, but a true empathic part of myself that knows deeply that life can be more than what our culture vomits up for the masses.” Again, embarrassingly earnest, but so it goes; we trust that our favorites “get it” and won’t judge unrehearsed musings as elitist, hyperbolic, loony, or plain stupid.

Usually a prompt emailer, Chuck didn’t respond. I figured he was on assignment or birding Bosque del Apache in New Mexico (“a hundred thousand ducks, fifty thousand geese and ten thousand cranes seem to help”). But a week later, at a table in the library, ringed by that great raw miscellany Bowden’s books so vividly evoke—schizophrenics with busted shoes, drunken mumblers, hunched babushka ladies fresh from feeding park-bench pigeons, wheelchair-bound war vets, giggling kids—I noticed a Times headline on my laptop.

Charles Bowden, Author with Unblinking Eye on Southwest, Dies at 69.

As per my habit, I was wearing headphones, four minutes of Estonian choral music looping, looping, looping in my brain’s circuitry. The melody crescendoed, tingling my neck, and with it surged sorrow. Like the Murder City all-nighter, here was another “sole time in my life”: the sole time an obituary had brought me to tears.

*

Two days before I clicked Send and my September 1 email zipped into the abstract void of the Internet, Charles Clyde Bowden died—at home, in bed, napping. Compared to the alternatives, it was a blessedly calm departure; the DEA was aware of three contracts placed on his head by drug cartels, and for a spell he had employed a bodyguard. Molly Molloy, his partner and collaborator, stated in the Tucson Sentinel that he’d come down with flu symptoms, seen doctors twice in the preceding weeks, and scheduled an appointment with the cardiologist. I was navigating smoggy traffic at the precise moment of Bowden’s passing, the scent of High Sierra spruce needles and ancient granite fleeing my nostrils, refusing to accompany me to the Bay Area.

The suddenness of sudden death is literally and metaphorically off-balancing, a stumble of the feet and the emotions; and it’s likewise a stumble of the mouth, language tripping and scrambling, fumbling for a stable foundation, a meaningful utterance. (“Too young!” my editor wrote, lamely, genuinely, in response to the note I sent informing her that there would be no interview.) Eloquence might emerge in a eulogy, might emerge with effort, but initially there’s just the ineradicable, stubbornly inarticulate fact of absence: no lanky body, no chainsmoker’s midnight baritone. “Waking up to a world without Chuck Bowden is devastating,” a colleague averred in a Tweet. “We lost our most powerful voice yesterday.”

Sporadically, unsystematically, I’ve pondered this aspect of loss, the loss that is No More Voice. It assumes a distinct quality with writers, doesn’t it? My grandparents will occasionally glide into a dream—I’ll hear their speech, their rhythms and intonations—but with the beeping alarm they vanish and only the residue of the oneiric encounter lingers. Lacking autobiographies or memoirs, lacking chests of secret musty diaries, the conversation can’t continue. Whereas with an author, a scribbler who has committed decades to recording ideas and insights, to sharing stories, to building a word-bridge from the island of their own inner being to the archipelago of scattered readers, the structure remains intact. We can go to the library, grab a book, step onto the opening sentence, stroll across that span.

Or can we?

In 1927, with the release of the last volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Janet Flanner proposed the following in the New Yorker: “Proust has been dead since 1922, yet the annual appearance of his posthumous printed works has left him, to the reader, alive. Now there is nothing left to publish. Five years after his interment, Proust seems dead for the first time.”

Here was another “sole time in my life”: the sole time an obituary had brought me to tears.

This indicates that old texts are not a strong enough medicine to flip the script on absence; what’s required is material that went unpublished during the author’s threescore and ten, material that, having been squirreled away in a hard drive or file cabinet, is debuting today. The issue of No More Voice, then, is fundamentally the issue of No More Surprise Voice, No More New Voice. Once we’re merely revisiting a text, that word-bridge can facilitate a satisfying stretch of the legs, but it won’t ever deliver us to the maker. That island has receded beyond the horizon.

I’m reminded here of Bowden’s friendship with fellow Southwest author Edward Abbey. Desierto, published in 1991, is dedicated to Abbey, who died in 1989: “RIP, BUT I DOUBT IT.” I’ve often toyed with that enigmatic koan, twisting it like a Rubik’s Cube. Was Bowden skeptical that Abbey—a notoriously mischievous, bawdy, prickly, piss-and-vinegar anarchist—would choose peaceful rest in the afterlife over the glee of submitting fuming letters to the cosmic editor? Perhaps. But another twist of the Cube reveals another option—Bowden was saying his comrade in prose lived on in ink. Read RIP as a synonym for croaked and he was saying, “I doubt it!”

Maybe this dedication was an assertion of literature’s durability and, by extension, an author’s ongoing vitality. The subject didn’t find its way into Bowden’s books, nor through the many feathers cluttering our emails, so I can’t speak to his stance. What I can do is watch a video interview in which he hits the black coffee, hits the Lucky Strike, and describes how even reporting a sketchy piece (guns in the face), he isn’t scared: “I’m on a mission, you know. And when I finish it, I don’t care if I get killed ’cause I’ve won. You shoot me, you’re still gonna lose. The press is gonna roll.”

*

The Estonian choir crescendoed, the tears trickled, and the librarians went on with their shelving. Nonfiction had suffered a blow that would be registered in the future, as books by “Bowden, Charles” ceased to take shape, but this blow wasn’t on my mind. No, just then I was asking: What happens to the emails in a corpse’s inbox? Do they wander blindly in a digital limbo? Does a Google technician delete them from the server? Might a family member, with username and password jotted onto a scrap of paper, add computer cleaning to the list—phone the funeral parlor, cancel the car insurance, donate the clothes to Goodwill—of agonized chores?

Strange to have felt nails splinter my door that night with Murder City. Strange to have become immersed in the intricacies of this one author’s art and vision and words. Strange to have seen a few of those words glow forth on the screen before my eyes, words extolling the virtues of slowness and wine and The Peregrine. But for all of these strangenesses, these welcome strangenesses, nothing compared to the abrupt cessation of dialogue, the severed conversation, the radio silence. Again, I was in unmapped twenty-first-century chaos. No guide. Not even a guide who had at heart my getting lost.

Like a pal of mine who’s keenly aware that J. D. Salinger left behind a treasure trove in his New Hampshire bunker-studio, I had confidence that the published Bowden was a fragment of the total Bowden. But in contrast to that Salinger-smitten pal of mine, I wasn’t treading circles, holding my breath. And so it was a delight when I learned in 2018 that University of Texas Press was preparing to rerelease the bulk of Bowden’s corpus and—I sensed the soils shifting, sensed the author stirring in his grave—bring out three new volumes.

RIP, Chuck, but I doubt it!

The first of the posthumous volumes, Dakotah, jumped from my (physical) mailbox in November 2019. By then I had abandoned the Bay Area, trading the Main Branch’s poetry anthologies and security guards and random shrieking and lofty glass atriums for a tiny cabin in the Colorado Rockies—rutting elk, frosty windows, saggy couch, dim by 5 pm. Snow was falling heavily that early evening and the fat composite flakes wetted the cardboard package as I walked from the post office to my home on the village outskirts. I brewed a pot of tea (chamomile in lieu of vodka, a Tuesday) and nailed the door shut. Locked myself into the room of Bowden’s unmistakable voice, a voice this time recounting an idiosyncratic history of the Great Plains: grasses and distances, Lewis and Clark, country cemeteries and the Lawrence Welk Orchestra.

In retrospect, gently closing myself into Dakotah would have sufficed: in part because it’s a slim 184 pages, more of a draft than a completed manuscript; in part because, unlike the typical Bowden sermon-rampage, it isn’t devoted to the ugliest appetites and grossest perversions of our species. Sure, it’s a weary-traveler book, a sepia-toned-reminiscence book, a lonesome-road book that managed to render that already cold November evening colder. But despite this—despite the bleached bison skulls and the thirty-eight Sioux hanged in Mankato, Minnesota, swinging “on the ropes in a huge rectangular gallows with a big crowd watching”—it’s not a nonstop, full-on nightmare.

Oddly, that it wasn’t a nightmare bummed me out: Trump is king! Antarctica is a puddle! Tigers are racing elephants (who are racing rhinos, who are racing coral reefs) to the finish line labeled extinction! Meantime, the damn stock market is on a tear! C’mon, brother, gimme the goods! Where’s my guide to twenty-first-century chaos? This reaction was unfair, of course; Bowden’s farewell nap had been in 2014, his unique perspective denied the chance to interpret 2019 horrors. In that regard—a fast-spinning planet and our need for a literature that keeps pace with the whirl—the book in my lap was dead, along with its author. A brick of pulped and processed trees. A tomb of bones and ash.

But forty-eight hours later, snow still slanting, Dakotah on my desk as opposed to in my lap, the disappointment morphed, transformed. Only because Bowden was talking to me—was an audible presence—could I make the blunder of presuming he’d comment on the current news and nastiness. The book’s deficiency was insignificant beside its deeper, weirder triumph. This buddy who wasn’t my buddy, who was practically a perfect stranger, had risen from the grave. As Terry Tempest Williams puts it in the foreword: “I am writing about Bowden in the present tense because he is alive on the page, even though he is dead.”

Alas, this living-dying business is messy, indecisive. November gave to December, the book gathered dust, the ghost flickered back into its grave, and the waiting commenced. I’d heard that Jericho, the next posthumous volume, was due to drop in spring. “This is a major event, not just in literary culture, but in how to think about our relationship with the ground and with one another in twenty-first-century America,” I wrote to the publicist at University of Texas Press. I wasn’t buttering the dude up to score advance copies or anything; I was trying (by babbling) to shed the energy of anticipation inside me. At nine thousand feet in the Rockies, spring can seem absurdly remote.

Weeks passed—quickly, speedily, however they pass when a virus attacks and folks quit hugging and the White House triggers a gag reflex and the avians go on mating, nesting, hatching, fledging. In March I Nordic skied and read Henry Bugbee’s The Inward Morning, Oscar Martinez’s The Beast, Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. In April I steered my bike clear of muddy potholes and read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Eileen Crist’s Abundant Earth, a scholarly analysis of Basho’s haiku titled Traces of Dreams. In May I resumed simple meditative sauntering, a cherished pastime, and cracked Howard Zinn’s hefty A People’s History of the United States. Floored by the cycles of profiteering and oppression—astounded by the resonances (billionaires banking billions, cops kneeling on windpipes)—I entirely forgot about Jericho.

But for all of these strangenesses, these welcome strangenesses, nothing compared to the abrupt cessation of dialogue, the severed conversation, the radio silence.

Come June, stuffed in with junk mail and extra junk mail—there it was, a cardboard package with my name on it, a missive from the land of the deceased addressed directly to me.

Jericho wasn’t addressed directly to me, obviously. But that’s the paradox of elated reading: we feel the opposite, as if the word-bridge has been engineered and constructed to achieve the destination of yours truly. A magazine editor once advised me to write as if it were a letter to your closest friend, that’s the key to intimacy. In a similar vein, Kurt Vonnegut once told the Paris Review that “every successful creative person creates with an audience of one in mind.” If there’s magic in prose (there is), it’s got lots to do with innumerable readers taking on this role of closest friend, this audience-of-one identity.

Furthering the illusion that the book had been written specifically for me was Bowden’s return to the shadows, to the grimy flipside of the bright, shiny American penny. Alternating sequences featuring a professional torturer and a DIY insane asylum with anecdotes of hiking and ornithological lore—allowing these to mingle and meld, to overlap and interpenetrate—Jericho mimicked the too-much confusion we call reality. In fact, a thread extending through the book is a tirade against walls, whether border walls separating human populations or mental walls separating Homo sapiens from other plants and animals. (“The line between me and the fly buzzing round my head, this line must cease.”) As Bowden razed wall after wall, I became increasingly disoriented and increasingly pleased. This was the lostness any reader with a pulse ought to be struggling to confront, the lostness of a world both impossibly rotten and impossibly tender, impossibly painful and impossibly beautiful.

Best of all, for me personally—the lostness was engendered by a voice found, by a conversation rekindled. I could see that Jericho was written during the period of my correspondence with Chuck, those months leading to his death; I could picture him switching from the manuscript to Gmail, then from Gmail to the manuscript. He had mentioned, when we were determining a place to conduct the interview, that he was holed up in Patagonia, Arizona, a storm approaching: “now it turns green. and the chigger [sic] come out in force.” There, on page forty-six, were the chiggers. And there was the zone-tailed hawk, the same raptor he had accidentally flushed from its perch. And there was the trudging, the parched-wash marching.

July 7, 2014: “at the moment i am buried with work. and some birds.”

We had exchanged twelve emails. Jericho made a baker’s dozen.

*

There’s this spot outside the village, maybe five miles from my cabin, designated wilderness surrounding, peaks heaped atop peaks: I read Jericho there over three warm June evenings. The routine was to pedal my bike to the point of sweating, then ditch it and walk the last bit, weaving a path through lodgepole pines and yellow glacier lilies and lichen-splotched rocks. Where the engorged creek curves and tumbles down a breached beaver dam, I would recline in the weeds, tamp tobacco into my briar pipe, and chill. Swallows and sandpipers. Warblers and wrens. Hummingbirds hovering, helicoptering the sky’s fathomless blue.

On the third evening, as I was nearing the book’s conclusion, one of these hummers dive-bombed, distracting me from a passage about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Glancing up in the nick of time, I caught the iridescence, the micro-feathers dancing with sunset’s bronze. The MLK passage was written with the customary Bowden power—it harmonized with the passages framing it less logically than symphonically (variations on a theme)—which is to say that even there in the bowl of mountains where the breeze trembled the shrubby willows and the water glinted, I was somehow locked in the room, the door nailed shut. Which is to say I wanted to continue reading, wanted to read forever, onward into the night and into the dawn, unafraid of the ink drying and the words running out, unafraid of the author becoming a permanent ghost.

But that iridescence was a crowbar prying the door open. An expansiveness rushed to greet me. I loaded my pipe and lit it. Inhaled, exhaled, inhaled. Smiled.

Chuck was in Juarez, investigating the concrete’s sticky crimson stains. Chuck was in Arizona, binoculars trained on a little drab somebody. Chuck was in his grave, nourishing the worms. Chuck was at his computer, smashing the keyboard. Chuck was a stranger. Chuck was a buddy. Chuck was a reporter, a writer in my hands and ears, a sentence unfurling across twenty-five-plus books. Chuck was a voice that, like poetry, echoes in the blank spaces, the margins, the emptiness following The End.

And Chuck was a womanizer, an alcoholic? And Chuck was sloppy, his punctuation erratic, his associative leaps too nutty for a rational reader to bear? And Chuck saw through a distorted lens, hypothesizing “hyper-violence” because he detected it in his own soul, pursuing gore in order to exorcise a demon? And Chuck was, to quote a coworker who adored him, “a crazy motherfucker”?

Okay, fine. What do I know about Chuck? I know only this: The man was gone, was journeying, was soaring with the roseate spoonbills of heaven, was glugging red wine with the vultures of hell, was deader than dead and, accordingly, was unable to enjoy the shimmer of a snowmelt creek, the twitch of a doe’s nose, the luster of a dragonfly’s armor, the bowl of mountains, the breeze-trembled willows, the hummer’s plumage, the buoyant song of an ever-foundering world.

But me, I had these and more. I had the rest of that passage about MLK left to go, and a couple pages still after that, and soon (October!) another book to savor, the final posthumous volume, Sonata. From Latin sonare, “to sound.” A fitting title. Language’s ultimate task, irrespective of corporeal disposition.

I laid a twig in as a bookmark and returned to my cabin, brimming, and though there wasn’t anybody on the other side to receive it, wrote an email. Just to write it. Just to keep the dead conversation alive. Then I clicked Send.

__________________________________

New England Review 42.3

This essay was published in New England Review issue 42.3 under the title “RIP, Chuck, But I Doubt It.”

Leath Tonino
Leath Tonino
Leath Tonino, a writer from Vermont, has also worked as a wildlife biologist in Arizona, a blueberry farmer in New Jersey, and a snow shoveler in Antarctica. He is the author of The Animal One Thousand Miles Long: Seven Lengths of Vermont and Other Adventures, and his work has appeared in magazines such as Outside, Men’s Journal, Orion, Tricycle, Utne Reader, and The Sun. When not at his desk, he roams North America’s libraries and wildlands.





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