An Odd Anthology

'The Charles Bowden Reader' offers a tantalizing taste of the great author's works

Charles Bowden's corpus of writing spans the American Southwest and Northwest Mexico, with forays into far-flung locales like Argentina, Italy, London and Australia.

He eats knowledge like we eat food, on a never-ending quest to understand our dry little piece of the world. He's a first-rate journalist, but more than that he is a complex human being, with strengths and weaknesses that breathe fire and passion and life into everything he writes. He can be angry; he can be compassionate; he can be foolish—but he is never fooled. He takes a story and rips at it with his teeth, demanding to know what makes it tick.

The new Charles Bowden Reader serves up a generous slab of his luminous writings. This long-awaited volume is a fine introduction for those new to his work, and it replays a few of his "greatest hits" for those already addicted.

The Southwest is the canvas across which Bowden splatters bold themes of love, danger, violence and appetite. Bowden revels in and yet is appalled by who we are and what we inflict upon ourselves, each other and the place we live. The strength of this anthology is in how the selections lay bare not just Bowden's soul, but also our own interior desert landscapes, especially the darkest and most secretive parts of our psyches. Each of his writings is like a mini Werner Herzog film: deep, multilayered and true in a haunting and surreal way. Watch Fitzcarraldo or Aguirre: The Wrath of God; the lead characters played by Klaus Kinski might have come straight out of a Bowden piece.

Unfortunately, I'm not convinced that the editors of The Charles Bowden Reader actually "get" Bowden. They babble on about "hope" (that pathetic mythology of our time) in their introduction, but they never mention the word "love," a key ingredient you must grapple with in order to understand Bowden. There are myriad themes in the man's writing, but the greatest and most important is love: love for people, love for the land, love for contradiction, the love a predator has for his prey, and so on. "Hope," on the other hand, is a hollow word, one that allows us to feel good while everything around us is dying, when we should be doing something to save the miraculous place where we live. Hope can wait; we now have hard work before us, as Bowden clearly illustrates. Bowden deals in the drug of reality—he doesn't tease us with some unattainable "hopeful" future. He shows how the best we can hope for (if we're lucky) is to come out even in the end, and it is love, not hope, that will save us.

There seems to be no common theme used by the editors in making their selections, which is fine, as the power of the writing shines through in even the shortest fragments. However, they could have done better. They could have illuminated his growth and development as a thinker and a writer by choosing and organizing the selections more thematically or sequentially. That is not to devalue the book; it just means I would have done it differently. Even the cover photo is a little odd, with a slouching Bowden looking posed and pensive—and there's not a cigarette or glass of wine or even a cup of coffee anywhere in sight.

The editors don't give any biographical information beyond a few random factoids, and they don't explore why Bowden is important to read. They don't present any social or cultural context for his work. There's no bibliography, selected or otherwise. There's precious little in the way of introductory material for most of these pieces, which means you're left to fend for yourself. The book is divided into five parts, and I'll be damned if I can figure out why.

Much is missing (nothing from City Magazine?), but there is grace and beauty here. The fine opening piece from Arizona Highways is an introduction to how Bowden came to writing. His writings from the Tucson Citizen on rape retain the same shattering power they had when first published early in his career. There is a lovely, wistful piece from Desierto: Memories of the Future (his finest book) about a windswept place in Baja California that is not to be missed.

This anthology is just a tiny taste that will leave you thirsty for more. If you aren't a Bowden fan now, you will be by the end.

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