Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Border Rats: Charles Bowden's Red Caddy- Into the Unknown with Edward Abbey

Miles Davis liked to say he could tell what kind of musician someone was simply by the way they walked and dressed. I was reminded of that when I found myself thinking about the first time I encountered the late great chronicler of the American southwest and the US-Mexico border, Charles Bowden. I was listening to the World Service while temporarily living in France some years ago. Suddenly, for no more than three or four minutes, there was this voice... Talking about the drug wars and violence in Juarez which, at the time, was only just hitting the news. I remember thinking, who is this guy? Up to then I'd ever heard of Charles Bowden. But from hearing that voice I knew I had to get hold of his books. Because I somehow knew this was a real writer, someone who not only spoke with a certain gravitas, but who doubtlessly wrote from experience, and clearly acquainted with death and tragedy, as well as the beauty of the natural world.

When I did get around to reading Charles Bowden I was certainly not disappointed. His true crime books about border issues, particularly the drug wars- Murder City, El Sicario, Dreamland, A Shadow In the City- are unparalleled. And his books about the desert are as evocative as they are  heartfelt. All of which are  beautifully rendered. You can pretty choose a paragraph at random, like the one I came across over breakfast this morning:  
"Down in the pit some heavy metal band is thrashing out harmonics and a small mob of kids is slam dancing in the afternoon sun. Young women walk past with blank eyes, tattoos, large breasts and a perfume that kills hope with one whiff. The young men shuffle past with homicide eyes. I am staring into the triumph of the industrial revolution, complete with cleavage. Here are all the people no factory whistle calls."
Naturally, I began to collect as many of Bowden's  two dozen or so books that I could find and afford. And what I can say is that there is probably more truth in a single Bowden paragraph than most writers are able to throw together in an entire book, or maybe even a lifetime of writing books. So I was pleased to hear the University of Texas through Lannan and something called the Charles Bowden Publishing Project are on the case, and have churned out a series of  well-presented Bowden reissues and at least one original, The Red Caddy- Into the Unknown with Edward Abbey. And it's this latter book that I primarily want to talk about.

It is, at the title indicates, a tribute to Abbey, that cantankerous author of Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang, amongst many others. Abbey, the conflicted writer, and, as Kris Kristofferson put it all those years ago, "a walking contradiction/partly truth and partly fiction." Not to mention Abbey  the reluctant spokesperson for any number of radical environmental activists, "monkey-wrenchers" as they are called in the parlance.

Bowden's short tribute- barely a hundred pages, with an intro by his friend Luis Alberto Urrea- shifts between his personal encounters and thoughts about Abbey, to preparing and attending a conference on the late author. A conference that Bowden dreads attending, and one that he knows Abbey himself would never have come within ten miles of. In between, Bowden does his best to demythologise Abbey- he "wasn't complicated, just ornery"- never once shying away from his more outrageous beliefs, while, at the same time,  pointing out what made him an interesting writer and friend. The title alludes to a car that Abbey purchased late in life as a gift to himself, a car that Bowden casually refers to as "an obscenity." Of course, that purchase was typical Abbey, the revolutionary with retrograde views on a range of subjects, such as   immigration, political correctness, women, etc.- sounding like a cross between Che Guevara and a Trump voter, though I doubt if Abbey, ever the anarchist, ever in his life  countenanced voting for anyone.  

It's a moving testimony, and Bowden's prose is as hard hitting as ever. Okay, so it's really little more than a puffed-up piece of journalism, but what journalism it is, with any number of memorable passages, such as the the following, in which Bowden, in the first page or two, lays it all on the line:
"To unravel something, you have to have as thesis. But to understand the dead ends, back alleys, and side roads of life itself, you have to mistrust your thesis and constantly keep an eye on it lest it blind you to detail, contradiction, lust, love, and loneliness. I can't write about a friend and make it neat and tidy until I intend to kill my friend. And this is not my intention."

 If you like Red Caddy, you will certainly want to read two other recently published University of Texas/Lannan Bowden books: Desert: Memoirs of the Future, originally published in 1991, and Red Line, originally published in 1989. Both seem as relevant now as when they were first appeared. With Bowden's voice, the one I first heard on the BBC all those years ago, coming through  on every page, the reader quickly realises that these days Tuscon's desert rat, the man with the pet rattlesnake, is missed more than ever. While Miles might have been able to tell the worth of a particular musician by the way he carried himself, for a writer, it's the way he or she talks- the tone and  ability to vocalise a world view- that matters. That's I see in Charles Bowden and what Bowden saw in his friend Edward Abbey.
"He lived in a moral universe. Beneath all the sexist barbs, the racist wit, the meanness, the pranks, the stunts, the anger, the episodes, the constant laughter and mirth, he inhabited and consciously expanded a moral universe. One where cleverness and normal standards of success don't count for  much but right and wrong count for pretty much everything. Ah, one life at a time, please, but still a real life."

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