‘Blood Orchid: An Unnatural History of America’ by Charles Bowden


In Montana, where I live, an anti-government activist named Al Hamilton is in jail on charges stemming from an armed confrontation with a local deputy. Recently Hamilton went on a hunger strike, comparing himself to Gandhi. But the next evening he gave in to appetite and ate some pork chops. The next morning he had sausage and eggs (over easy).

All this was reported joyously in the local press. See, the message was, these people are not serious. Montana locals tend to regard Hamilton and his little band of militia cohorts as media clowns. But they’re more than that; some of them are seriously crazy and extraordinarily dangerous; some of them seem to yearn for martyrdom.

Since Waco and Ruby Ridge and the bomb in Oklahoma City, we have been hearing about these rural folk who carry weapons and think of themselves as warriors, who refuse to acknowledge any allegiance to the devices of what we fondly call our democracy; they will not pay taxes; they say they are fighting for freedom. Some rave about computer chips planted in their children and mysterious black helicopters, and others quote Thomas Jefferson on the usefulness of armed insurrection: “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”


What’s going on is a lot of ill-informed and deeply paranoid anger about lost liberties no one was even promised in the first place. But that’s easy for me to say. If you really want to understand the angst among these alienated citizens, read Charles Bowden. “Blood Orchid” is a passionate report on the real-world sources of their unrest.

Bowden feels and understands the anger of people who feel cut off and out of the loop, and why they are starting to react with an utter refusal to go on being somebody else’s baby. He speaks from a lot of time spent with people who understand themselves as disenfranchised. Their fury has been cooking for a couple of decades, on all sides of the political spectrum, from the Native American AIM (American Indian Movement) and Earth First! radical environmentalists to the so-called “posse comitas” and those who describe themselves as some sort of militia.

Bowden gives us his complex, energetic narratives in ways that encourage us to experience them for ourselves, as our own. He asks us not so much to agree but to think. Bowden says: “What is explained can be denied but what is felt cannot be forgotten.”

Early on in “Blood Orchids” he begins interweaving the story of Charles Keating, among the lawyers on trial for losing so much of so many other people’s money, with that of a dying Native American man named Robert Sundance.

“Over $2 billion,” Bowden says of Keating, “have slid from his hands and yet he seems to suffer no hangover. He is eager to reach for that bottle again.” Of Sundance on Skid Row in L.A. Bowden tells us: “When there was no money one drank Sterno, called Pinky. [They] would beg for money on the streets, telling passersby they needed funds ‘to get our friend Pinky out of the can.’ ”

The courthouse in Los Angeles, where Keating is on trial, and Skid Row are only a few blocks apart. “It takes force,” Bowden says, “to keep these things separate; it takes money; it takes energy. America is running out of these things. . . . Take Skid Row. No one can really police it any more. The night is too powerful, stronger even than the cheap wine. . . . There are few of us who root for government regardless of the facts of the matter. The polls do not reveal this fact but it is in the air in every cafe, every whiskey bar, every woman’s eyes, every blade of grass. We know something has ended in our land, and we know the government does not know this, and that the government is part of what has ended.”


Bowden shows us a society increasingly divided by a great metaphoric fence. On one side live the washed, who live as if pain, heartbreak and chaos could be scrubbed out of life. On the other are those who know that such a program is nonsense, who look the devil in the eye, and try to understand and accept chaos and the generative power of embracing disorder (but who oftentimes fall into the trap of thinking that they are themselves heroic for doing so).

Of Keating, Bowden says: “His brilliance was in his knowing his emptiness, in sensing it and acting on it. He made money meaningless by squandering billions.”

Keating is a victim of that failure of the imagination which knows no story to inhabit but the greed for power which Bowden sees driving our society. “The yellow peril, [the African-Americans], the Third World, the illegal immigrants we do not pity, the Jews, the shanty Irish, [the gays] . . . are moths flying to our flame. . . . They still believe in progress, development, boot straps, open discussion, process, probate, civility, and all the malarkey we feed them. We know what it is really about. Taking. . . . We are the future and you will not change the channel because we are too compelling. . . . We are your dish.”

“Blood Orchids” is about isolation. “We tell ourselves we are the most powerful specimens of our kind who have ever lived. But when the lights are off we are helpless.” But it is ultimately about belief. “There can be no reality without fantasy,” Bowden says. “We can never be large enough to touch the solid, feel the living, move with the energy unless we imagine ourselves as more than we can ever really be.”

“Imagine the problem is that we cannot imagine a future where we possess less but are more.” Charles Bowden writes about things too complex to control: injustice and our need to go with our native goodness if there is any hope for justice.

“Blood Orchids” is about cutting through the garbage in imaginative ways. Robert Sundance sobered up and spent the last decades of his life helping others on Skid Row in Los Angeles. After he died, and was to be buried in the Dakotas, an old friend stood by his coffin and said, “He found a purpose.” So did Charles Keating, I suppose, but his purpose was idiotic and pointless.


“Blood Orchids” is its own trip, brilliant and sometimes excessive but always compelling. Bowden says what he means, hang the consequences. He is becoming one of our most important voices in the so-called New West.