Jay Meehan: Songs of the desert rats II
"I don’t trust the answers or the people who give me the answers. I believe in dirt and bone and flowers and fresh pasta and salsa cruda and red wine. I don’t believe in white wine; I insist on color."
– Charles Bowden
As I mentioned in last week’s column, which dealt, in the main, with the DVD of the Edward Abbey film "Wrenched" and the attendant raw-footage interviews of many of his desert sidekicks, the other prize in the mailbox that day was the Oct. 13 edition of High Country News, an issue-wide tribute to that late, great desert rat, the writer Charles Bowden.
Why I found this particular print testimonial to Bowden and his work so riveting (nearly a hundred others would appear online within the week) related to the inclusion therein of a quite-profound profile of the man penned prior to his death by his friend, Salt Lake-based author and documentarian Scott Carrier ("Running After Antelope," "Prisoner of Zion," This American Life, All Things Considered).
Entitled "Charles Bowden’s Fury: How a desert writer chased his own white whale" and featuring prose that’s pure Carrier and not without a bit of fury of its own, the piece bravely enters the minefields of corruption and murder along both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border that had so consumed Bowden over the years.
It also flaunts a Conrad-esque quality as Carrier is sent by "headquarters" to assign a stability factor to the ever-changing whereabouts and always in-flux mindset of their recently-gone-missing cohort. Dante had it right: "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."
An editor’s note and an obituary, both fashioned by longtime Bowden friend, author, and HCN Senior Editor Ray Ring, are perfect sidebars — not to mention the inclusion of one of Bowden’s last essays, one entitled "On the edge with Edward Abbey, Charles Ives and the outlaws," written as a contributing chapter to the upcoming anthology "Abbey in America: A Philosopher’s Legacy in a New Century."
Then there’s the scene-of-untold-crimes cover photo of Bowden assuming an angle of repose along a border fence in a Juarez "barrio" featuring the emphatic caption: "The Southwest loses its strongest voice!" You really do need to procure a copy of this issue!
All in all, I’m treating this particular edition of HCN as a "collector’s piece." From now on, following an as yet undetermined stay upon my bedside table, it’s home will be a box designated for just such venerated texts.
Keeping company with a few of the late Paul Swenson’s spot-on observations from Utah Holiday Magazine, a few aging Bloomsbury Reviews and some early Lodestar Magazines, this exceptional issue of High Country News should fit quite comfortably within my personal pantheon.
I suppose the fact that I heard Bowden reading his own words before I ever read them myself gave me a jump-start on the inflection and innuendo lurking within the shadows of his prose.
From that first reading and book signing down at Ken Sanders bookshop way back in the day, any time I flip open one of his many works of long-form nonfiction, essays, reportage, or cultural criticism, I hear that gravelly, yet musical, sub-baritone holding sway.
It was as if I was listening to a hybridization of Charles Bukowski and Tom Waits with a bit of John Coltrane’s phrasing supplying cohesion and emphasis. I could never get enough of that desert rat’s unending song! And when combined with the message of where he had been and what he had seen and what was probably around the next corner, it was brutal and unforgiving and confrontational and clear-eyed and perfect!
I guess it was almost exactly four-years ago at a "Bioneers" gathering at Westminster College when I finally fell into a one-on-one with the man himself. Down there to catch his keynote speech, I had spied him on a stoop having a smoke beforehand and it wasn’t long before we were shooting the breeze about desert hiking, climate change, the closest proximity to a glass of red wine, and the inherent darkness at the edge of town.
As Bowden’s friend and fellow Southwestern writer Luis Alberto Urrea commented shortly following his death, "Although he was sort of based and seen as a border writer, I think that that was really his beat — sort of the darkness in the human soul."
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.
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