Remembering Chuck Bowden

Friends say goodbye to a Southern Arizona literary titan

Southwest author and reporter Charles "Chuck" Bowden died at the age of 69 on Aug. 30 at his home in Las Cruces, N.M.

While the cause of death remains unknown as of this writing, his girlfriend, Molly Molloy, said that Bowden had been feeling ill for a few weeks and was visiting doctors to see if they could get to the bottom of what ailed him. He took a nap and didn't wake up.

The Weekly asked friends and colleagues to share their thoughts about Bowden, an iconoclastic writer who launched his career as a reporter for the now-defunct Tucson Citizen, co-founded City magazine in the late '80s, and went on to write books about nature, high-finance shenanigans, the impact of the drug war on the U.S.-Mexico border and much more.

In the end, we are remembered for two things: Who and how we were as people, and the work we did in our time. Chuck Bowden was a bundle of contradictions, gruff and kind, professorial and red of neck, hermit and prophet. He drove his friends to despair, but never so much that he lacked for friends on whom to practice.

Others will talk about all that. I want instead to speak of Chuck's work, at least some of which, I suspect and hope, will last long after all of us who knew him are gone.

I edited four of his books in the 1980s, lightning-hot and righteously indignant cries of love and pain, each a great leap forward from the one before it, a startling evolution of form whose central message remained constant up until the end: The world is a fucked-up mess, Chuck told us, and we are all complicit in its destruction—some more than others, some more thoughtfully than others, but all of us guilty. At the same time, he continued, the world is a fine place, and though none of us is worthy of its heartbreaking beauty and though we will probably lose in the end, it is our job to do whatever we can to save it from the monstrous machines that are devouring it. With which we, beg pardon, are devouring it.

Each of his readers will have a favorite among his published books. Mine is "Blue Desert," which ranks up there in that grand library of Southwestern literature that embraces such books as "A Desert Country Near the Sea," "The Forests of the Night," "Blood Meridian," "The Secret Knowledge of Water," "Sunshot," and "Where Clouds Are Formed." My runner-up favorite, though, is an imaginary book that we all want in our collections, one that he never wrote but that we spoke of often, made up of mad meditations by way of riffs on lyrics by Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and Townes Van Zandt. For whatever reason, it never materialized; Chuck never put himself in the running as a lyricist, instead lighting off to look the devil in the eye and tell the tale.

Rock 'n' roll's loss was literature's gain, and literature gained much from Chuck Bowden's tenure on this green and wounded planet. He will be missed—ever more so, I think, as the worst of the world he described resolves itself into the best the future has to offer. Travel well, Chuck. Nos vemos.

—Gregory McNamee

Gregory McNamee is the author of "Gila: The Life and Death of an American River" and "Blue Mountains Far Away," among many others.

It is Bowden's sick sense of humor at play, I know it. I have spent hours since he died being interviewed by shaken journalists and baffled radio people. All I do lately is go on record talking about how awesome Chuck was. I can hear that bastard's raspy laugh.

Yeah, I think he'd see the humor in dying in his sleep after his legendary (mythical?) bushels of death threats and assassin sorties looking to collect his head. Narcos and sicarios must be gnashing their teeth all over Sonora and Chihuahua. And his lovers and exes weep. But I think—check me if I'm wrong—that Chuck would not be interested in mourning. I think he would approve of my plan to wear a "Fuck Chuck!" T-shirt so talk shows leave me alone.

You Baja Arizonans knew him far better than I. I knew him as well as I could. I knew Chuck through his generosity and competitiveness. He bought 40 copies of my first book to give to people. His next-door neighbor wrote me to say he introduced her to my writing. He greeted me always with great humor and a reading list and news of some new atrocity in Mexico because he did not approve of my loyalty and love for Mexican border culture.

Might not have been a bromance, but he never forgot that I made him cry the first time we had a beer. I asked him to tell me about Ed Abbey. Tears, and an "Aw hell," and he vanished down Speedway. I don't think either of us ever forgot that.

I can't prove it, but I think Chuck was influential in my getting a Lannan Award for "Devil's Highway." He was there when they handed me the check, and he lifted his glass of vino ... and left without a word.

Ultimately, that was what it was about, wasn't it. The writing. Legends, persona, abyss, danger, women, booze, ciggies, guns, assassins—it was about the writing. Nobody could sling it better. Nobody loved it more. Loved it enough to help competitors realize their dreams.

And this new little gesture of his—forcing me to sell a few last copies of his books. I loved Chuck, and one day, maybe I'll cry in a bar when a kid asks about him. Adios, cabron.

—Luis Alberto Urrea

Luis Alberto Urrea is the author of "The Devil's Highway: A True Story" and "The Hummingbird's Daughter," among others, and was a 2005 Pulitzer finalist for non-fiction.

The first time I met Chuck Bowden was over the phone. I answered to hear Chuck's unmistakable voice, as if he were chewing on marbles and swallowing a slug of whiskey at the same time. He said, "Listen, I don't know you but a friend (Jim Harrison) dropped this manuscript on my front step and said read it. I did. I think we should meet."

Soon I was spending long afternoons in Chuck's office at the back of his house on Ninth Street in Tucson. Usually the conversations were more one sided, with Chuck spewing out his thoughts on human nature. He was never boring and always generous with his time and advice, most of which could be boiled down to some version of "No one really knows anything, but I guess that's what makes us keep digging." He came from the Midwest but loved the underbelly of the Southwest where whores serenaded drug smugglers and street walkers still believed in ghosts that wander in the night. He detested the politicians that hid behind their glass buildings and thought gated communities were the sign of the end of times. As much as he may have denied it, Chuck spent a lifetime trying to level the playing field.

He didn't name drop famous writers, although they were amongst his friends. Instead he talked about the people he spent his quality time with, people who lived close to the land or at least close to the razor's edge of life. Ranchers, cops, criminals and people who knew things, like scholars, librarians and anthropologists. He carried the torch, however reluctantly, once held high by his friend Edward Abbey of giving a voice and shape to the Southwest. He went to New York on occasion but could really care less how the publishing world perceived him. He just wrote and wrote and wrote, and his books read like a man singing ancient verses from a secret vault only he knew how to find. He relished in our imperfections and challenged others to see those qualities as the truly valuable aspect of the living.

Charles Bowden did something that is incredibly hard to achieve in writing. He told the truth and nothing more. He had a method to his prose. He learned everything about a topic and then stripped it all down, only concerned with telling the essence of the truth.

He will be remembered by many and studied by even more. For those who have never read Mr. Bowden, I envy the day they open that first book and discover a unique voice that not only paints a picture of this place we call home, but taps into the narrative of being truly awake.

—Bill Carter

Bill Carter is the author of "Boom, Bust, Boom: A Story About Copper, the Metal that Runs the World" and "Fools Rush In: A True Story of Love, War, and Redemption."