Brave New Future

The finale of Charles Bowden's coffee-table-book trilogy shines a light on the harsh, ever-changing West

A year ago, I ran into Charlie Keating at an ice-cream parlor in a ritzy suburb of Phoenix. Keating, you'll recall, was one of the major players behind the savings-and-loan crisis back in the '80s and actually did some prison time. He told me, "You know, if all that had happened today, they (the government) would've simply handed me a $5 billion bailout, and that would've been that."

Stunned, I stared at him—and realized the man was probably right.

Tucson journalist and writer Charles Bowden actually got the goods on Keating and his empire of cards before anyone else. Bowden later wrote an important book (with Michael Binstein) about the whole Keating affair called Trust Me: Charles Keating and the Missing Billions. The thing about Keating is that he represents who we Americans really are: pious, optimistic, greedy and power-hungry. In a strange way, Keating is a kind of American hero, the sort of person who many (especially on the conservative side of the aisle) aspire to be.

Bowden dredged up Keating as part of his ongoing projects to understand who we really are, and to figure out how one can live a moral, decent life in this insane asylum we've created for ourselves.

Bowden has recently completed the third volume in a trilogy of coffee-table books published by the University of Texas Press. The first volume, Inferno (see "No Boundaries," Aug. 17, 2006), explores "the edge," that place where opposite forces come together in a veritable pulsar of life, energy, commerce and violence. Photographer Michael P. Berman's stunning black-and-white photos illustrate Inferno and are also featured in the new book. Berman's photos are pure Cormack McCarthy—burnt and raw and brutally honest—like Ansel Adams landscapes on meth. The second volume (see "Movement and Migration," Jan. 8, 2009) is called Exodus/Exodo, and in it, Bowden kicks over a rock and shines a searing white light across the issue of immigration. In this newest book, called simply Trinity, Bowden attempts to wrap his arms around the entire history of the American West.

What is Bowden's West? A place of mayhem? Evil? Madness? Perhaps. But it's also an incubator of the future, where the melting pot of the American Dream is transformed from a graphic novel into a harsh reality of blood, sex, commerce and destruction. Do not seek mercy or redemption here. The West has never been that kind of place.

The Trinity of the title covers many things. It is past, present and future. It is the bizarre three-headed Christian god. It is the clash of Mexicans, Americans and Indians. It is the United States, Mexico and the border. J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb and a major character in this book, named the site of the first nuclear explosion Trinity, perhaps from his readings on Hinduism. Significantly, Trinity was the place where science lost both its innocence and its ethics, and from where there was no turning back.

One way to understand Bowden and his body of work is to compare him to the great classical composer and conductor Gustav Mahler. Mahler was the transition between 19th-century Romanticism and 20th-century Modernism. If you sit down and listen to all 10 of his symphonies sequentially, you can hear him writing and rewriting over and over again, struggling to punch through the old until what emerges is something astonishingly different. Bowden is like that. His is a new kind of writing that is transforming history, essay, journalism and deeply personal memoir into a singular new vision of the world. A reading of his considerable body of work from beginning to end is an eye-opener that documents the history of a brave new future we are only now beginning to comprehend.

Trinity is ultimately about people who came from someplace else and took the ground by force from its previous inhabitants, only to be replaced themselves. It's the story of the murder of the earth, and our murder of each other. Indians took the land from the mega fauna; Spaniards took from the Indians; Mexicans took from the Spaniards; Americans took from the Mexicans; and now something—we know not what—is emerging to take the land from us. Perhaps it's Mother Nature, winding up for the final smackdown.

If this is our ultimate fate, you can bet Bowden will be there, and he will bring back the story.