On the death of writer Charles Bowden

This morning I got an email from the newsroom asking if I could help them confirm that the Tucson writer, Charles Bowden, had died.

I hadn't been in touch with Chuck for years, I didn't realize that he had moved to New Mexico, but I sent a few emails myself, one to my friend, the Scottish novelist Barry Graham, and he sent a few more emails, and within minutes, he told me it was true.  Bowden was 69.

I read in the Tucson Weekly that he died in his sleep while napping. The reporter writing the story for my newspaper told me that it was not yet certain how Bowden had died -- possibly of complications from Valley fever, which Barry told me he had for years. 

Bowden was the author of more than two dozen books, mostly about the Southwest, ranging from the environment to the border and its drug wars, some of them so intensively researched and attributed that I felt vertigo wondering how he could juggle so much information in his mind and then get it down in words.

I went to my library and took down the copy of my favorite, Blues for Cannibals, which he published in 2002,  a wandering memoir and extended metaphor in which life is a mesquite tree; the book's prose is as lush and tangled as the branches of that hard-to-kill tree.

He wrote it as he was struggling with the deaths of four close friends, from cancer, a freak accident, and suicide. But it's about life, or rather the things that make life:  sex and lust and art and beauty and hate and murder and weather, and things you knew but never thought of, like inhaling the scent of a dog's face. 

It is episodic, picaresque, expressionist, old testament prophetic. On one page he's gardening, on the next he's banging a woman on the hood of his pickup truck in the desert, then at an execution, then writing about a historic Yaqui hero, then telling of an uncle cutting down a nephew who hanged himself. He writes about food and cooking in ways that are lustful. When he writes about desert flowers, it is near pornographic.

I was very pleased when he told me that the title was inspired in part by a story I once wrote about an Arizona State University professor who proved that the ancient Anasazi Indians were not peaceful potters and pueblo builders, but in fact cannibals.

He inscribed my copy with the words, "Michael, I hope you can tolerate this stuff, Chuck Bowden."

Today, I opened to this passage:

"I live in a time when death is off the table, the thing unsaid. We wish to live forever and because of this desire, we hardly live at all. I am trapped in the great age of caution, of watch out, of fear. But I was blooded in the age of desire and lust and love. I will always be a mesquite waiting for the rain and knowing it is coming even in those summers when it never comes at all."

And now he is gone.

We were not friends. I did not know him very well. But we had things in common; we wrote for some of the same magazines, we both started out in academia and then covered murder and mayhem for newspapers. He taught in Chicago, and I had spent so many years there that I started to think that I was from Chicago, too.

Bowden was almost famous. He had a cult following. His books sold. He was a regular contributor to the best magazines. And he was a mentor to me and to so many other less successful aspiring writers.

"I can't think of a writer who was more generous to other writers," Barry Graham told me today over the telephone.

Indeed, he wrote flattering blurbs to two of my books. He seemed aware of what I had been writing.

A few times I had the pleasure of visiting with him on the back patio of his Tucson home, drinking so much red wine that I was unable to drive home to Phoenix and would have to get a hotel room in Tucson. Barry Graham was even less polite than me and would linger until he was invited for dinner. Bowden was an accomplished cook.
"I often think about how, when I spent the night at his place, and we were up late and drunk, he'd still get up at three in the morning to write, a routine he stuck to no matter what," Barry told me today.

But the visits were really more like having an audience with a great mind; Bowden did most of the talking, and that was fine because the stories were so intriguing, like how he was pulled over by a cop as he was transporting the corpse of a friend packed in ice in the bed of his pickup truck. I particularly liked that he would play with young and full-of-themselves New York magazine editors by telling them something along the lines of, "I have to get off the phone, because it's Tuesday, and this is the day the mail truck comes down to the junction," when in fact, he lived in a Queen Anne bungalow in town near the University of Arizona.

Truth be told, there are stories that I can't recall whether he actually told me or I read them. It was the same voice, deep and resonant, ironic yet basic, full of wisdom, full of life. And I hardly knew the man.

The end of Blues for Cannibals:

"Rise now, kick the legs, ignore the screaming of the lungs. Back to shore.
The salt taste bites the tongue.
I think a woman is part of the answer, but then, I am a man."