Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

November 27, 2019

Book Review: 'America's Most Alarming Writer: Essays on the Life and Work of Charles Bowden'

Charles Bowden at the 2010 Texas Book Festival Photo: Parker Haeg
Book Review: 'America's Most Alarming Writer: Essays on the Life and Work of Charles Bowden'

By Brenda Norrell
Censored News

Seated at the Mexican cafe with the defendants from the day's Earth First! trial, I didn't know who Charles Bowden was. I was thrilled that I was meeting someone who just came off the Sea Shepherd. As soon as Chuck began to speak in his rhythmic raspy voice about the unromantic soggy ride on the rough seas, I knew who he was.

He was the best writer that I would ever meet.

In the new book, "America's Most Alarming Writer, Essays on the Life and Work of Charles Bowden," Chuck's friends, family, editors and publishers tell stories of the man whose deep root and cause for being, like the revolutionary Che, was love.

It was the cadence of his voice -- the rhythmic musical quality of his voice -- that bound Chuck to his readers, says journalism professor Todd Schack of Ithaca College in New York.

In his essay, Schack says Chuck's literary legacy is "the way he invites us into this space with the smooth cadence of his voice, then nails the door shut behind us."

Chuck wrote, "My dream is to invite a reader into a room and pour a nice cup of tea ... and then nail the door shut."

It was not merely the sound of his voice that made Bowden one of the greatest writers of our time. As his sister, wife, friends, editors and publishers point out, he was a historian and disciplined writer. There was the almost Ph.D. and an insatiable appetite for facts and wonder. Disciplined far more than most reporters and authors, he rose at 3 or 4 a.m. and pounded out his soul.

None of these facts, however, are what drew me to his writing. It was his unabashed, unquenchable love of the Sonoran Desert. Chuck would walk out in the desert and throw a bedroll down in a landscape full of rattlesnakes and sleep beneath the stars. His words were a love song to the bighorn sheep and creatures who secret the desert.

Bowden went to the border because that is where life hides.

It would be naive to think that the danger in Juarez and elsewhere in Sonora and Chihuahua is not real. It is dangerous just to hang around, eat tacos and look smart and curious there. Chuck was both. In his books, he names names, investigates the DEA, talks with undercovers about the underbelly of U.S. drug running, and describes the acid baths of the narcos.

Chuck rose to defend Gary Webb, who exposed the US role in drug running into California neighborhoods. When Chuck saw the young women of Juarez maquiladoras, hard-working young women, disappearing, and heard how they were brutalized and butchered, he could not stop writing their stories.

Writing about narco-traffickers isn't a lucrative field. Most people in the U.S. really do not care, neither about the innocents nor the drug lords.

In his essay, author Alberto Urrea describes meeting Chuck in a bar in Tucson. Chuck was with his bodyguard, a former Federale. Urrea was with his friend, a biker missionary of sorts, a good-hearted soul who fed the hungry.

When Urrea mentioned Chuck's friend Ed Abbey, Chuck began to cry.

Another time, down by Patagonia where Chuck hammered out his books in summers, not far from Nogales, Chuck cried for a long-loved uprooted cottonwood tree.

He was a complicated man, a gentle soul.

Besides loving birds, he loved to cook and took cooking lessons in Italy. When he moved to Las Cruces to be with his partner Molly Molloy during the last years of his life -- with his focus on El Paso/Juarez and its DEA, narco-traffickers and murderers -- he arrived at Molly's with a shiny new green cooking pot.

While writing more than 20 books and an enormous number of magazine articles, Chuck escaped the conventional in Tucson and wrote in hotel rooms, cabins and ranches in Sonora, Arivaca, and Patagonia. As Leslie Marmon Silko points out, he was ambiguous as to where he lived at any given time.

In the book, there are the details of his life, the garden in his backyard in Tucson, and that worrisome Ph.D. dissertation that was never accepted, with all that talk about punctuation. The rebel writer would not conform to all that need for capital letters.

Then there was the nomination for the Pulitzer. The Pulitzer family yanked Chuck's work, replacing the nomination for his Tucson Citizen articles about sex crimes on the border with an article about an airplane. The Wall Street Journal wrote to let him know they recognized his genius.

None of it slowed him down. He was an outsider, a misfit, who found his place mirroring the world on both sides of the border. News reporting and writing books are a sort of catch and release, seizing what is there, and yelling it out so loud that the world has to hear.

He rang the bell loud.

Most news reporters burn out or give up early in life. Chuck didn't. Neither did he seem to lose his memory. Ernest Hemingway warned writers to get out of news reporting early in life, before it destroys their memory. Even as a book author, Chuck is a news reporter. He created a narrative style, the style of storytellers, which lured his readers in. For those who survived the summers hidden away in Tucson's barrios with the swamp cooler roaring, waiting for the monsoon rains, they needed to know that Charles Bowden slept in the desert and slept in the rain.

Writers are nuclei in life, at its center. As Chuck's friends recognize in the book, you probably have to born that way, because there is no way to be Charles Bowden.
After that first evening over Mexican food at the Earth First! trial in Prescott, Arizona, I no doubt passed by Chuck during the next 20 years in the Fever Dream known as Tucson, where we both lived. Maybe we passed over at the Crossroads restaurant in search of chile rellenos, or perhaps we passed by each other down at the Hotel Congress Cup Cafe while the bands played, or maybe our paths crossed out on the Prieta Cabeza, with an eye out for Pronghorns. Maybe it was at Arivaca, watching out for hummingbirds, Minutemen and idle Border Patrol agents.

When Chuck passed away in Las Cruces, it meant that I would not have that chance again, that outside chance of listening to him tell a story one more time.

Tony Davis calls him the Jimi Hendrix of journalism.

Chuck was definitely a rock star.

In 'America's Most Alarming Writer,' smuggler and author Don Henry Ford, Jr., describes taking Bowden down to Ciudad Acuna to his cave, with the mattress on the floor, where he once ran drugs south of the border with the DEA, CIA and Columbian cartel all in the mix.

Don had served his time and was impressed with Chuck. He couldn't believe Chuck really wanted to go there, with Mexican soldiers still standing guard.

Don's admiration for Chuck, the storyteller, misfit, and rebel, the friend of Ed Abbey and the voiceless, was clear.

Don writes, "I want to go where Chuck went when I die."

Epilogue for this story, (because it is really long)

The words of Clara Jeffery, editor and chief of Mother Jones:

Chuck—never Charles—didn’t write for money, one reason he wrote for me so often at both Harper’s and Mother Jones. He didn’t write for fame, either, though he’s revered among people who cover the border and crime, and among writers who like voice and metaphor and can forgive occasional romantic excess. He would sometimes take an assignment an editor dreamed up, or one you’d discussed along the way, but just as often he’d dump 20,000 words on you out of the blue. Sure, you had to cut it in half somehow, and ground passages where the jazz got too free. But he was gracious about editing—”Oh hell, do what you want, I trust you”—and fact-checking (no small undertaking). He was a champion of the underdog, which included the migrants and dirt farmers, the maquiladora girls and asylum seekers he wrote about, but also the writers, poets, filmmakers, photographers, or artists whose careers he helped. He respected hard work, which could be work that was dangerous or epic in scope, but also hard in another way: tricky, gutting, soul-baring, a high-wire act.

From the publisher:

/Broyles, Bill; Bruce J. Dinges (Editors); Ken Sanders; Katie Lee; Jack Dykinga; Alice Leora Briggs; Molly Molloy; Julian Cardona; Jim Harrison; Scott Carrier; Leslie Marmon Silko; Luis Alberto Urrea; Alan Weisman; et al.
Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2019.

The author of more than twenty books and a revered contributor to numerous national publications, Charles Bowden (1945–2014) used his keen storyteller’s eye to reveal both the dark underbelly and the glorious determination of humanity, particularly in the borderlands between the United States and Mexico. In America’s Most Alarming Writer, key figures in his life—including his editors, collaborators, and other writers—deliver a literary wake for the man who inspired them throughout his forty-year career. Part revelation, part critical assessment, the fifty essays in this collection span the decades from Bowden’s rise as an investigative journalist through his years as a singular voice of unflinching honesty about natural history, climate change, globalization, drugs, and violence. As the Chicago Tribune noted, “Bowden wrote with the intensity of Joan Didion, the voracious hunger of Henry Miller, the feral intelligence and irony of Hunter Thompson, and the wit and outrage of Edward Abbey.” An evocative complement to The Charles Bowden Reader, the essays and photographs in this homage brilliantly capture the spirit of a great writer with a quintessentially American vision. Bowden is the best writer you’ve (n)ever read.

About the author:
Brenda Norrell has been a news reporter in Indian country for 37 years, beginning as a reporter at the Navajo Times. During the 18 years that she lived on the Navajo Nation, she was a stringer for the Associated Press and USA Today. After serving as a longtime staff writer for Indian Country Today, she was censored and terminated in 2006. She created Censored News in Tucson and traveled with the Zapatistas in Mexico.
She covered the Earth First! federal trial in Prescott in 1991 as a freelance writer for Outside magazine and others. The trial revealed the misconduct of FBI undercover agents and informants and the U.S. government's targeting of environmentalists.

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