IT'S PROBABLE THAT neither of them would endorse the idea wholeheartedly, but it seems to me that in many ways Charles Bowden is Jack Kerouac's closest literary heir. The writings of both, a start-and-stop, boozy trajectory from On the Road to Trust Me, illustrate Wallace Stegner's maxim that American literature is less a matter of place than of motion, that we find our natural idiom in the hurtling, in the onrushing, in the transient lurching toward some dimly imagined future that may well turn out to be hell.
Of hell Bowden, a longtime resident of the Sonoran Desert, is a specialist. While serving as editor of the late, lamented City Magazine, Bowden would frequently disappear into the desert's more challenging expanses to turn up dark tales of drug smuggling, human misery, and savagery. His journeys produced essential books in the library of the Southwest's great desolation, among them Blue Desert (University of Arizona Press, 1986) and Desierto (Norton, 1988). They also produced a new way of looking at our region, a view that behind every stately columnar cactus seeps a fountain of painfully lost blood.
In this passage from his new book Blood Orchid: An Unnatural History (Random House, $23), Bowden sets out doing better than double nickels on the dime, careening toward Los Angeles and the dark heart of Charles Keating to find out what fuels America. Some may not like what he finds, but here it is, unvarnished and unraveled.
ON THE WAY to L.A., I pulled into a truck stop in Arizona and I ordered the chicken fried steak because it was cheap. The waitress was one of those women we call mousy--small boned, scant flesh, tight constricted face, a pinched life. She'd worked for fifteen years for Westinghouse Air Brake back in Pennsylvania and waited bar at the Slovenian hall on the side. Then she'd been laid off and gotten a year or so of unemployment. She'd used up every dime and minute of that unemployment. She said, "I figured I deserved it, that I'd earned some kind of vacation." When the money ended, she drifted down to Florida where there were sun and rumors of an economy. She could only find the sun and wound up taking care of a forty-year-old man who, as the doctors say, had the mind of a child. His folks paid her wage, and the guy, while a bit simple, could eat, dress, talk, do most of the things Americans are asked to do. She fucked him, taught him about sex, and then his folks took notice and said, hey, why don't you two get married and we'll leave you all the money if you'll take care of him for the rest of his life. It was tempting, truly tempting. But she hit the road, and here she was in Arizona waiting tables until she saves up enough for good tires so she can press on. She needs a clutch too. As she told me all this she kept saying like the downbeat from a drummer "You know, dontcha?"--saying it just like that, as a kind of punctuation. Christ, she didn't want much and she wanted me to know that. Back in her Westinghouse days, "I had a nice place, dontcha know? I mean I'd have people over and set a good table with linen, nice china, a roast. A washer and dryer too. Look at me now, I don't know, dontcha know? I mean look at me. I never saw this happening to me, I never saw myself this way, I paid bills, I wasn't...dontcha know? But what do I do, well, I just keep chipping along, chipping along, that's the way I see it, I don't look right or left, I just keep chipping along, right? Maybe I'll go back to the idiot in Florida, I mean he was okay. He's got this thing where he can get a little rough, but I can handle him. What else I got? Where am I supposed to go? I'd leave here tomorrow if my car was fixed, dontcha know?"
And she asked me how my steak was and I said fine.
I THINK I have a prayer because of Columbus. If he had not sailed, if we had not raped and sacked this New World, I would be finished and so would you. The Admiral, he is out there on the deck of his ridiculous little ship, the green Atlantic spitting spray into his mad eyes and he is looking, looking for what we are. He is the Great Captain of biodiversity, of the food chain, of modern ecology, of the double helix. (The Great Captain loves to rave, don't we all? And here he is in the year of Our Lord, 1503, sputtering another pearl of wisdom: "Gold is a wonderful thing! Whoever owns it is lord of all he wants. With gold it is even possible to open for souls the way to paradise!") He has brought us together. He, and those who followed in his wake, collide with a legion of new species, with thousands of new data bases that other humans have cobbled together and though he will largely misunderstand these things or denounce them or seek to slay them, they will have their way with him and his kind. Oddly enough, we will later see him in two ways that ignore his real achievement: one as the great mariner, the exemplar of the rational European mind that does not think the earth is flat, that navigates strange waters, keeps written records, casts light where there had once been darkness. Or at times we will see him as a mystic, a religious fanatic, a final sputtering of a distasteful world we label medieval. These interpretations will not do. I see him as a funnel and through this funnel the New World pours into my genes and becomes, perhaps, the saving remnant. For what this discovered hemisphere gave us is a chance to recover the irrational, the illogical, and the powerful. The forests that overwhelm us, the mountains that dwarf us, the forces that crush us. Here the drums were not yet stilled. Here God still lived, though at times God drank copious goblets of blood, or was a stone, or a buffalo skull, or a mountain. Here we could glimpse what it meant to not be disturbed by our own smell or by our hunger for each other's bodies. Here....
I speak for the mongrel, the mestizo, the half-breed, the bastard, the alley cat, the cur, the hybrid, the mule, the whore, the unforeseen strain that pounds against all the safe and disgusting doors. I speak for vitality, rough edges, torn fences, broken walls, wild rivers, sweat-soaked sheets. Who would want a world left mumbling to itself, a perfect garden with the dreaded outside, the fabled Other held at bay and the neat rows of cultures and genes safe behind some hedgerow? I dread a world that is all Iceland, the people fair, their genealogies stretching back in a dull column for a millennium, their folkways and mores and lifeways and deathways all smug and pointless. I speak for graffiti. Look, there is Christopher, watch the son-of-a-bitch, watch'm, he's got a spray can of paint and look what he's writing on that temple wall....
WE WASTE TOO much time on arguments about nothing. It happened, we are what became of it. There is no Eden to save, not now, not in 1492. True, we could have done better--but then everything is a like a love affair, everything could have been done better. But the mess we lament, that is the thing that a part of me celebrates. The strange mongrel mixture of races, ideas, seeds, spores, viruses, bacteria. Ways of making love.
By 1492, Europe was a death house with a dead God and legions of dead souls. The Mongols had been beaten back, so too the Moors. The cathedrals were huge and yet empty, dull sanctuaries bereft of magic. No one could remember the druids and we all had serious doubts about the women. It seems the priests told us they were unclean. The land mass we call Europe had been butchered, all the forests made groves, all the meadows made fields, all the ground made tame. A place used up. All the signs of decadence were present and this failure of the heart was seen as innovation. A new burst was occurring in writing, in painting, in machines. The things scholars for the coming centuries would celebrate and call a rebirth, these things were actually signs of a vast dying of the spirit. Of this I am convinced because five centuries later I live at a similar moment in the history of my breed. We too live in a dead culture with dead Gods and yet we are flailing outward into space, the depths of the seas, the secret crevices of the earth, the once sacrosanct gardens of our cells. We are mining the double helix, poking about in the strange codes of life itself. We sail on our own clumsy caravels and galleons just as Christopher himself once did. But, getting back to 1492, I shudder to think what would have happened to Europeans if they had not found, murdered, fucked and become mired in the cultures of the New World. I fear they would have been lost forever and taken everyone and everything down with them. They were heading down that metal highway that leads to the kingdom of the cyborgs. What the jungles and plains and mountains and deserts and forests of the New World accomplished is this: they permanently poisoned the faith of Europeans in rationality. They brought back the night.
I realize that some will disagree with me on this. The general belief is that the people of the New World went down, and their ideas went down with them. We pay odd clerks called ethnographers to gather scraps of what we consider this vanished lore. We are fools, of course.
There are other matters. The radio this morning announced that condors are going back into the mountains, birds baked in some laboratory and brought forth to the skies without the memory of a mother. They will find our kills. But the wolf can hardly be located except in zoos. This is of small note to most of us. Also, the air is heavy with dangerous gases. This is true everywhere now. And the sun shines too fiercely because of new holes in the sky. Many of us will die of cancers because of this sun. They keep doing polls that discover no one any longer believes in the future. Except me.
I HAVE VISITED the future. She lives a mile or two away in a cheap cathouse. No one likes her and hardly ever will a customer take her upstairs. This is odd--most of my life has been spent in an America that loved fucking the future. The past was largely forgotten, the present given scant attention because no one had any time, but the future--that was the territory for hope and dreams and love. Perhaps, the problem lies in her face--it is of indeterminate origin, in some light looking white, in others brown or yellow or black. The color of her eyes shifts also, as does the size of her breasts, the fineness or coarseness of her hair. The guys tell me that she doesn't look European, you know, and they don't want to fuck a future that doesn't look like them. She has very little to do and if you ask her she'll say she is a surplus human being, a soul no one needs in the urgent business of producing things. She is too poor to buy much so the stores don't give a damn about her. She, being the future, has had six or seven jobs but they all seem to have been in cathouses just like the one where she now lives. She says her work bores her but it pays some bills. She is very lean, not frail, but streamlined. One night she laughed and said she was the ultimate model of the consumer society, a creature totally consuming herself. At night she keeps candles burning, one a green wax Buddha, another a glass jar with a decal of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the yellow glow glistens off the faces on the walls, masks from Africa, Borneo, Mexico, Mardi Gras, Octoberfest, the Inaugural Ball and so forth. She never explains the masks to me, nor does she ever wear one. Every flat surface in her room is covered with dolls, hundreds of dolls. When she goes away, she covers their heads with little paper bags so they will not witness her departure and weep. The future is usually alone and the future is lonely. She walks around almost invisible to us and no one loves her. True, there are rare moments when she is glimpsed briefly and then suddenly people throng her and try to stone her to death. They leave her mangled and cold on the ground and walk off with their true lovers, the past that never happened. I have found her with her breasts slit, her face scarred, the painted nails on her hands broken. I cradle her in my arms and take her back to the cathouse where she waits and waits for someone...to love the future or at least accept her. She is actually quite intelligent and sometimes at night when I am up in her room she will pound me for hours with statistics on resource depletion, global ennui, malnutrition, pollution, population explosions, infant mortality, suicide rates, the strength of the mark against the pound, the yen against the dollar. What is the Polish per capita production of carbon, she will ask and then she will make a sound like a giggle. She is lovely then, her face aglow with feeling and all her dolls watch her with quiet pride. Somehow she can measure how many children on earth have too many toys and not enough love. She never does drugs, not a single line. She tells me everything will be fine once I understand...the future. That she will not be threatening, harsh perhaps, but not threatening. She will be gentle with me the first few times and then I will remember who I am and my body will sing and I will go forward and not care whether I live or die or whether I get cold or hot or whether I will feel hunger. There will be work, the future promises, an abundance of work. She makes me coffee and the cup is always chipped but clean. She whispers to me that there are no secrets, that I can see everything just as clearly as she can, that all I must learn to do is look. And feel. She presses her breasts against me when she tells me these things and softly sings and I am learning to love her.
Time is of the essence, of this there can be no question, and so I get in the machine and the Bronco dives down the freeway ramp at 105 mph. The driver is the perfect antidote to myself. He is precise, he is good with tools, he can fix things, he has a memory like the Library of Congress. And, praise the Lord, he knows the freeways of Los Angeles.
He comes to me with ideas. Wildlife is his passion and he wants to save animals. It can be late at night and he suddenly will have this new idea. He can get the grizzly bears, don't ask how, he says. They are slated for destruction and he can get them. We will put one in the back of a U-Haul truck, he will drive, and I will ride in back with a syringe. If the bear begins to stir, I am to give it a shot, okay? We will release the animal in the mountains where it will be safe. We will restore the bear to its former range. What do I think, he asks?
I realize I am supposed to say that this is an insane idea. But if I do that, then I will not be here, I will be somewhere else. And I want to be here, or at least get closer to wherever this place is.
So I hesitate, but we keep talking.
On the radio this morning a woman announcer with a friendly voice said a new-born baby had been discovered in a Pennsylvania sewer pipe. And that a politician would appear for the prosecution in Los Angeles County Superior Court in the case of the bondholders against a once leading businessman. This last little item had brought me hurling across the Mojave desert and deep into the canyons of Los Angeles. I felt sure the session in court would provide another clue for me about the future. If my culture is basically sound, the words spoken in court will merely shed light on a crime. If my culture is basically unsound, the words spoken in court will teach me how my society is fundamentally nonfunctional. I tend to the latter position. Which leaves me in a kind of lurch, since I am totally a product of my culture. I cannot survive without a bottle of ketchup or decent, tasteless American cooking.
Cover photo by Mark Levy
Inside photos by Sean Justice
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