From his first book, Killing the Hidden Waters, to his most recent, Murder City: Cuidad Juárez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields, Charles Bowden has been sounding an alarm about the rapacious appetites of human beings and the devastation we inflict on the natural world we arrogantly claim to possess. His own corner of the world, the desert borderlands between the United States and Mexico, is Bowden's prime focus, and through books, magazine articles, and newspaper journalism he has written eloquently about key issues roiling the border—drug-related violence that is shredding civil society, illegal immigration and its toll on human lives and the environment, destruction of fragile ecosystems as cities sprawl across the desert and suck up the limited supplies of water.
This anthology gathers the best and most representative writing from Charles Bowden's entire career. It includes excerpts from his major books—Killing the Hidden Waters, Blue Desert, Desierto: Memories of the Future, Blood Orchid, Blues for Cannibals, A Shadow in the City, Inferno, Exodus, and Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing—as well as articles that appeared in Esquire, Harper's, Mother Jones, and other publications. Imbued with Bowden's distinctive rhythm and lyrical prose, these pieces also document his journey of exploration—a journey guided, in large part, by the question posed in Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing: "How do we live a moral life in a culture of death?" This is no metaphor; Bowden is referring to the people, history, animals, and ecosystems that are being extinguished in the onslaught of twenty-first-century culture.
The perfect introduction to his work, The Charles Bowden Reader is also essential for those who know him well and want to see the whole panorama of his passionate, intense writing.
Charles Bowden's office looks out on a garden of desert plants, brazenly green in the flat, white light. At his desk he hunches forward, eyes piercing through a haze of cigarette smoke as the words on the screen build. At certain intervals—the end of a paragraph, a chapter, a thought—the drumming from the keyboard is interrupted by the snubbing out of a cigarette, a slug of high-octane coffee. And then the words begin to build again.
You don't have to be in his office to sense this. The words on the page have intensity and immediacy, employing mood as much as meaning. They demand attention and hunger equal to the writing. Reading Bowden, you feel the urgency of insight followed by a rush of responsibility, for it is our collective future in this troubled world that he is wholly focused on.
Bowden's first book, Killing the Hidden Waters (1977), explores the "mining" of water, a non-renewable resource in the deserts of the southwest. The book asserts that the water we pump to make the desert bloom—the water that supplies our golf courses, subdivisions, and swimming pools—will not last, no matter how many wells are drilled. It was a controversial stance, but it won the support of Edward Abbey, who proclaimed Bowden "the best social critic and environmental journalist now working in the American southwest." The thesis of Killing the Hidden Waters—that resource problems are nearly always cultural problems and not the result of scarcity—began a path of exploration that Bowden would follow in nearly everything he has written since.
In the early eighties Bowden became a reporter at the Tucson Citizen, quickly distinguishing himself by covering complex stories that other reporters either ignored or saw as insignificant. He spent months covering a miners' strike and years writing about sex crimes—a beat many reporters flat-out refused. The resulting stories were not the usual beefed-up police reports, but hard-hitting portraits of people whose lives were changed forever. Bowden, like others, was horrified by the sex crimes but he believed, as he did in writing Killing the Hidden Waters, that we have no hope in managing our destructive appetites if we are afraid to acknowledge their existence.
Bowden also began covering the U.S./Mexico border while at the Tucson Citizen, and subsequent magazine pieces and books on border issues have become some of his best-known work. More than two decades before it became commonplace for reporters and humanitarian rights activists to expose the dangers of illegal immigration, he made his own illegal trek into the United States from Mexico in 1983 following the same trails immigrants suffer on today. His life has been threatened for exposing drug trafficking and murder in Juárez, Mexico. Yet Bowden continues to cover "the line" because it is a trip wire for issues—migration spawned by global inequality, the rise of stateless criminal cartels—that will shape the twenty-first century. In Juárez: The Laboratory of Our Future, he writes, "The future has a way of coming from the edges, of being created not in the central plaza but on the blurry fringes of our peripheral vision."
While Bowden has a gift for humanizing complex issues such as the border, his profiles often work differently, separating the unique from the universal rather than joining them. Distilling personalities—be they hit men, artists, or neighbors—is another kind of gift, but even those accustomed to the process are impressed by Bowden's perceptiveness. Max Cleland, the former Georgia senator, Vietnam veteran, and triple amputee, said of Bowden: "I've been interviewed by . . . literally hundreds of people in the last thirty-one years. He is the single finest interviewer, storyteller, writer that I've ever come across. He has an ability to capture people, who they are, who they really are, below the surface. He knows the surface story but he captures, and certainly did for me, a psychological dimension that I'm not even aware of myself."
Bowden's gift for insightful profiles grows out of his own, introspective nature. At times, his writing can be deeply personal, exposing his own unsavory appetites, his own violations of the law and the land.
Yet Bowden's explorations inevitably lead outside of himself and into the hard, real world. Ultimately, this anthology attempts to document Bowden's journey of exploration—a journey, in large part, guided by the question posed in Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing: "How do we live a moral life in a culture of death?" No metaphor; Bowden is referring to the people, history, animals, and ecosystems that are being extinguished in the onslaught of twenty-first-century culture.
Given the demands of editors, advertisers, and prescribed audiences, it's nearly impossible for Bowden to be so personal and far-ranging in his journalism. So it is in his books that Bowden is able to fully synthesize his explorations. He travels disparate roads, not subject to linear notions of time and space, and so, in Exodus, for example, we may pass Pancho Villa and corrupt coyotes and Bowden himself crossing the same dusty trails on the same page. Some readers find Bowden's books hard to follow at first, but connecting every dot is less important than accepting the alternate reality Bowden reveals, the new people he challenges us to become. "I want to get the reader in the room and then nail the doors and windows shut," Bowden says. Readers willing to give him such time and commitment are seduced by Bowden's distinctive rhythm and lyrical prose, and inevitably persuaded by his ideas.
The hard examinations Bowden delivers throughout his body of work have prompted some to describe him as angry. But it is a mistake to confuse his condemnations for cynicism. In Mezcal, for instance, Bowden looks at the destruction of the desert by human beings and notes the contrast between the filth of modern human settlements and the open desert. He believes that in this contrasting landscape, we may be able to see ourselves in a way that we haven't before. He writes:
The deserts force us to think rather than argue. I sense a new way of thinking emerging from the contact made in this century between the modern Americans and the ancient ground surrounding them. On the face of it, such a change in thinking would appear unlikely. The recent boom in the desert is not the kind one expects to produce a bumper crop of insights. It is crass, bustling, vulgar, cheap, ugly and has the soul of a real-estate swindler. But ideas tend to come from grubby places.
I will bet my life on this place. The emptiness will tell us what we need to know. Whether we listen or not.
So, yes, there is hope and the hope is not found on some distant mountaintop or in some grand building with steeples and stained glass. The hope can only be found within us and in our own grubby places.
And if it is up to each of us to find and feel that hope for ourselves, we still owe Bowden something for articulating the behaviors that will lead us there: Appetite is a part of being human, desires drive us, and reality wins out every time.
The author of twenty-six books, Charles Bowden has also been a contributing editor for GQ, Harper's, Esquire, and Mother Jones. His best-known work focuses on the U.S.-Mexico border, which engrosses him because it is a trip wire for issues—migration spawned by global inequality, the rise of stateless criminal cartels—that will shape the twenty-first century.
Erin Almeranti is a writer, editor, and teacher living in Tucson.
Mary Martha Miles, a college English instructor, radio disk jockey, and writer, is a longtime friend of Charles Bowden.
Jim Harrison is the author of thirty books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. He has recently published The Farmer's Daughter and In Search of Small Gods, a book of poems. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.