Charles Bowden: Tom Zoellner and Luis Urrea pay tribute

The late Charles Bowden took aim at the guilty conscience of West; this was Emerson wielding an axe handle

Charles Bowden, an investigative journalist and author renowned for his writing on the American Southwest and for chronicling the border between the United States and Mexico, died Saturday at age 69. We asked a few writers to share their memories of him.

TOM ZOELLNER, associate professor of English at Chapman University and author of "Train" and "A Safeway in Arizona":

I first knew Charles Bowden through his words, and those words were sharp, difficult, repellent and completely fascinating. Dark elemental forces coursed through his work and he made them relevant to the news.

Mexican migration was about lust, in the work of Bowden, and the urbanization of the Southwest was about desperate love. His 1987 book "Frog Mountain Blues" came out when I was a senior in high school in Tucson, Ariz., and I bought it in hardcover -- a considerable expense for me at that time -- because it was about the Santa Catalina mountains where I had done a lot of backpacking. But this was not the placid nature essay I had been expecting. Bowden took aim at the guilty conscience of West; this was Emerson wielding an axe handle.

“The stone skyline exists in every car sold, every house slammed against the desert floor, and every steak sizzled over a mesquite fire in a cowboy restaurant,” he wrote.

I decided I wanted to be like Charles Bowden when I grew up. Just as I had wanted to be a newspaper reporter, he had been an expert one, writing about local crimes in horrifying draughts of copy for the afternoon Tucson Citizen. In his own cantankerous way, he had an attitude like Albert Camus, who always insisted that he was not a philosopher but a journalist first. Except that Bowden also hated being called a journalist. He told the Arizona Republic in 2010, “I'm a reporter. I go out and report. I don't keep a [expletive] journal.”

Imagine those words spoken in a cigarette-tempered Chicago monotone through bad teeth on a sandstone patio looking out onto desert plants and you have an idea what it was like to spend a tipsy afternoon with Bowden at his small bungalow just south of the University of Arizona. This was a man who had spent long periods of time living out of his car or sleeping in the desert and his house had been a filthy mess until it was brought under the civilizing influence of his girlfriend Mary Martha Miles.

He typically arose at 3 a.m., went to his converted garage, turned on classical music and worked through the dawn and early daylight, argued over the phone with New York editors until noon and then drank red wine in his reclining chair in the afternoon and held court with a revolving cast of Tucson eccentrics – crack-addicted prostitutes, politicians, scientists, artists, and, of course, reporters, members of his own tribe, to whom he could be exceedingly kind. He had taken an interest in me as I was working on my first book and he penned me one of the most generous lines of praise I have ever received.

Listening to Chuck could be exhausting. He had theories for everything that was hidden, and while some of his ideas were opaque, he spoke in the same twisting beats of his prose; I occasionally caught exact phrases that I’d read in his work. “You follow?” he asked incessantly. “You follow?”

His garden had standing water in the fountains and mosquitoes buzzed around us. “You know what’s really causing that?” he said to me, his unfiltered Lucky held aloft as I slapped at a fresh bite. “That’s ovulating females at work. They’re taking their revenge on us. You follow?” The natural world, in all its austerity and violence, was never far from his thinking. “We do not know who we are until we look at the mountain,” he wrote.

Bowden cared nothing for how his work was received by media elites, he claimed to have ignored all his reviews and he liked to say that the only point of writing was in service to the reader. Writing was an intensely physical act for him that often made him feel like dying; the agonizing labor over his sentences was the most overwhelming compulsion he knew.

He was one of the most blindingly original literary voices of the last century – not merely a Southwestern writer but one who witnessed injustices against nature and acts of startling decency and made them vivid for an international audience. Here lies a reporter.

LUIS URREA, author of "The Devil's Highway" and "Queen of America":

I was back in San Diego when my first book came out in 1993. One day, the ringing phone got me out of bed at 6 a.m.  The guy on the other end had clearly survived what I would consider a rough night of liquor and cigarettes. The rasp in his voice carried the gravel of miles of rough road. “Urrea?” the voice said.  “Chuck Bowden. Been up all night reading your book.” Though I was deep into a Charles Bowden phase at the time, I had never met the man.

This was a classic Chuck blitz — I barely had time to gather my wits. Wait, wait — Charles Bowden, calling me, reading my book, and how did he find my number? Before I could sputter too much, he announced, “You owe me money.”  I said, “For what?” He said, “I ordered forty copies of it for all my friends.”

I was footloose at the time, and gathered a biker pal and drove to Tucson to have drinks with The Great Man. We arrived at a hotel bar on Speedway — Chuck sat in the corner, with walls behind him so the narcos couldn’t sneak up on him. He had a retired Mexican federal agent packing heat as a bodyguard, and he scanned the crowd with a Danny Trejo grimace. This made for a memorable bottle of Corona, for sure.

Chuck, grizzled and reeling a bit, seemed to flow across the table and said to the biker, “Are you a good man?” Flummoxed, my friend finally said, “I don’t know” and excused himself. We sat there being writers together, swilling beer and trading border stories until I asked Chuck about [his late friend, author] Ed Abbey. He started to weep and said, “Oh hell,” and left the bar.

We spent many years after that being friendly. He was always cheerful and generous and full of data and editorial comments. Sometimes, he wanted to talk about gardening. He seemed to take umbrage at times over my hopeful comments about the border. Chuck did not see hope in the border — ever. He once famously interrupted me at a podium as I was singing the praise of Mexican border culture, grumbling into the mike: “I don’t know what planet you’re from.”  At another event, he could no longer contain himself and muttered “Oh Gawd….” Into his mike.

This may be the best definition of Chuck Bowden I could give: He could not contain himself.  Nobody else could, either. Nor could any life or landscape. I recall so vividly a black-tie event chock full of writers in tuxes. Chuck showed up in jeans and a corduroy jacket. “I wore a bolo tie!” he said. The next thing I knew, he was being detained by Secret Service agents because Alberto Gonzalez had appeared, and Chuck shared his outrage over the Iraq invasion. “Murderer! Fascist!” he shouted as all the big name superstars sipped white wine and watched the show.

Ah, Chuck, I’ll miss you, amigo. You kept us all honest. 

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