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America's Most Alarming Writer: Essays on the Life and Work of Charles Bowden

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The author of more than twenty books and a revered contributor to numerous national publications, Charles Bowden (1945-2014) used his keen storyteller's eye to reveal both the dark underbelly and the glorious determination of humanity, particularly in the borderlands between the United States and Mexico. In America's Most Alarming Writer, key figures in his life--including The author of more than twenty books and a revered contributor to numerous national publications, Charles Bowden (1945-2014) used his keen storyteller's eye to reveal both the dark underbelly and the glorious determination of humanity, particularly in the borderlands between the United States and Mexico. In America's Most Alarming Writer, key figures in his life--including his editors, collaborators, and other writers--deliver a literary wake for the man who inspired them throughout his forty-year career. Part revelation, part critical assessment, the fifty essays in this collection span the decades from Bowden's rise as an investigative journalist through his years as a singular voice of unflinching honesty about natural history, climate change, globalization, drugs, and violence. As the Chicago Tribune noted, "Bowden wrote with the intensity of Joan Didion, the voracious hunger of Henry Miller, the feral intelligence and irony of Hunter Thompson, and the wit and outrage of Edward Abbey." An evocative complement to The Charles Bowden Reader, the essays and photographs in this homage brilliantly capture the spirit of a great writer with a quintessentially American vision. Bowden is the best writer you've (n)ever read.


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The author of more than twenty books and a revered contributor to numerous national publications, Charles Bowden (1945-2014) used his keen storyteller's eye to reveal both the dark underbelly and the glorious determination of humanity, particularly in the borderlands between the United States and Mexico. In America's Most Alarming Writer, key figures in his life--including The author of more than twenty books and a revered contributor to numerous national publications, Charles Bowden (1945-2014) used his keen storyteller's eye to reveal both the dark underbelly and the glorious determination of humanity, particularly in the borderlands between the United States and Mexico. In America's Most Alarming Writer, key figures in his life--including his editors, collaborators, and other writers--deliver a literary wake for the man who inspired them throughout his forty-year career. Part revelation, part critical assessment, the fifty essays in this collection span the decades from Bowden's rise as an investigative journalist through his years as a singular voice of unflinching honesty about natural history, climate change, globalization, drugs, and violence. As the Chicago Tribune noted, "Bowden wrote with the intensity of Joan Didion, the voracious hunger of Henry Miller, the feral intelligence and irony of Hunter Thompson, and the wit and outrage of Edward Abbey." An evocative complement to The Charles Bowden Reader, the essays and photographs in this homage brilliantly capture the spirit of a great writer with a quintessentially American vision. Bowden is the best writer you've (n)ever read.

38 review for America's Most Alarming Writer: Essays on the Life and Work of Charles Bowden

  1. 4 out of 5

    Niklas Pivic

    This collection of fifty essays on the life, work, and times of/with Charles Bowden paints a broad picture of him as the hard-working, always-himself, postulating, teaching, drinking, and self-avoiding man that he could possibly be. Writing consumed Bowden’s life. When a girlfriend complained that he wrote “all the time,” Chuck tried to explain that he was “possessed by the writing demon,” but she was having nothing of it. “That’s unfair to me,” she said, only to have Chuck reply, “how do you thi This collection of fifty essays on the life, work, and times of/with Charles Bowden paints a broad picture of him as the hard-working, always-himself, postulating, teaching, drinking, and self-avoiding man that he could possibly be. Writing consumed Bowden’s life. When a girlfriend complained that he wrote “all the time,” Chuck tried to explain that he was “possessed by the writing demon,” but she was having nothing of it. “That’s unfair to me,” she said, only to have Chuck reply, “how do you think it makes me feel? My life is never my own.” I’ve only read one of Bowden’s books, Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields, which I liked a lot. The title alone made me want to read it. The thought of how Bowden worked is enough to make people like him. Bowden wrote for newspapers and national magazines for the simple reason that they paid enough money up front so that he could afford to write the books that mattered to him. He explained the process this way: “National Geographic called and asked me to do a story. I said, ‘I’m not interested.’ They said, ‘We pay $4 a word.’ Now I’m interested. They fly me to somewhere for five days, I write for three days more, and they pay me $16,000. Then I can write my books.” For all the darkness Bowden exposed, he identified fear as humanity’s greatest threat and remained an optimist at the end. Several years before his sudden death in Las Cruces, New Mexico, on August 30, 2014, he explained to an interviewer how “as a kid, I used to play pickup games of baseball every day after school in Chicago.” Chuck reminded him that “you can’t step up to the plate without thinking you’re going to get a hit. Otherwise, why the hell would you pick up the goddamned bat. Of course I’m an optimist. I want to preserve human joy. I’m not a pessimist. I’m critical because I’m in a ship that’s springing leaks and nobody wants to admit it. I want to fix the boat before we sink.” Tony Davis: We would argue over minutiae; talk about books, music, and movies; and rant together against the decline of the newspaper business that has seemingly never stopped. Chuck would alternately praise and disparage his work, calling himself a laborer in the “fluff factory,” compared to “you heavy hitters” (such as me) who wrote, long, tome-like, detailed analyses of issues and accounts of dry government reports outlining the ills of pollution and groundwater depletion. Kim Sanders: I met Chuck Bowden in 1997, when I was a Dallas Police Department Narcotics detective assigned to DEA. He approached me at the direction of a retired DEA agent. He wanted to know about an informant who had passed away and had spent his life fighting the cartels that had ruined people he loved. I had known, worked with, and respected the courageous old man. About a year later, Chuck returned to Dallas when I was working undercover on a case related to a group of heroin traffickers. He asked me to tell him my ground-level perspective. I had to be able to get a gut feeling assessment of someone pretty quick in the business I was in. I liked Chuck pretty much right away. He had that air of a damaged soul and the eyes of a man who had seen too much pain and suffering, which I could relate to. I also knew that the years of tension and stress were destroying me, for I no longer believed in what I did, and knew I had to leave it or die. I took Chuck deep into the ugliness of what had become part of my world. In so doing, I came to learn that the tragedies and human suffering he had so deeply investigated, wrote about, and lived through were trying to destroy him, too. Rebecca Saletan: When I became an editor in chief, he wrote me (in his characteristic uncapitalized style—he believed hitting the shift key was a waste of time and energy): becky maybe i once sent you this quote. if not, here it is. i found it a great comfort when i edited a magazine. it also applies to books, i believe. chuck I note what you say about your aspiration to edit a magazine. I am sending you by this mail a six-chambered revolver. Load it and fire every one into your head. You will thank me after you get to Hell and learn from other editors how dreadful their job was on earth. H. L. Mencken to William Saroyan, January 25, 1936. Gregory McNamee: Chuck Bowden asked questions. A few books down the line, having dealt with the likes of the saint-cum-con man Charles Keating and other assorted episodes of mayhem on the Sonoran Desert side of things, Chuck crossed watersheds and began to work the territory that would be an obsession forevermore, the binational killing field that was the Rio Grande in the more dangerous corners of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. He would write of dead prostitutes and dead innocents and dead assassins and dead places: he would become the poet laureate of the dead and of all of those of us in the desert who are limping, ineluctably, into death’s domain, whether having committed horrific crimes or just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Read him at your risk. You have nothing to lose but your worthless convictions about how things are. —Jim Harrison This is a very timely collection of a true writer who had to write. It’s a hagiography, sure, but the love and adoration for Bowden shine through, even from the eyes, hands, and mouth of others.

  2. 4 out of 5

    M. Sarki

    https://rogueliterarysociety.com/f/am... ...Chuck knew that evil begins when one turns a deaf ear to the soft whisper in our souls—that there is something more—that our existence has meaning… Lucky to have a first look at this wonderful tribute to Charles Bowden, a writer I had previously either disregarded wrongly, or failed to take notice of properly. Based on the many heartfelt essays regarding this man and his work I am now obsessed with reading everything I can about him. A strong five stars https://rogueliterarysociety.com/f/am... ...Chuck knew that evil begins when one turns a deaf ear to the soft whisper in our souls—that there is something more—that our existence has meaning… Lucky to have a first look at this wonderful tribute to Charles Bowden, a writer I had previously either disregarded wrongly, or failed to take notice of properly. Based on the many heartfelt essays regarding this man and his work I am now obsessed with reading everything I can about him. A strong five stars simply based on his friends and associates bringing needed attention to his body of work and his own relentless search for truth and the courage to reveal it. ...Read him at your risk. You have nothing to lose but your worthless convictions about how things are… All the essays included here have fair warnings about how brutally violent much of Bowden’s work is. Bowden himself was violent and outdoors-rugged. Appears he met the criteria for the typical wild west American icon. But he was also a teacher who taught these hard truths to students. ...Follow the line of a feeling to evoke a greater whole, rather than the straight arrow of time along a single narrative line…Be willing to offer yourself up in order to implicate the reader…Go all the way. Evoking and describing are not enough… ...Another observation he made while I was casting around for what-to-do-next-and-benext-in-my-life was that everyone has an arrow within them that drives each individual, and that this inner compass is somewhat predetermined or instilled from a very early age; understanding oneself occurs with the knowledge of just what that arrow is… Finding that arrow has proven to be the most difficult assignment in my own life. Still searching and wishing for more understanding. I do know an overly-examined life can also prove detrimental in ones relationships with others. ...Chuck was born soon after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. He grew up during the best of times for America and saw it go down the tubes during his lifetime...he didn’t want to outlive a mountain, but he just might outlive his country...America has changed from what it was in the 1950s and ‘60s. He’d seen it turn rotten through with greed and fear, and he was strong enough not to turn away or deny this…He was a connoisseur of the actual mess we’ve made of our world, and he described its flavors meticulously...It is the tenderness that keeps me turning Bowden’s pages. Maybe I have grown inured to the unending brutality of the borderlands, which is meted out casually in government policies no less than in fits of individual rage… Thank goodness we had journalists the likes of Bowden and Hunter S. Thompson. The question now is who has taken their place? ...He was a lover of many women, sometimes several at a time...He disliked nature writing for its lack of women, sex, and booze... Bowden reportedly was not good in his relationships with women. Perhaps because of the booze he required he could become abusive. Or maybe his life being lived on the edge contributed to his personal atrocities. “We do not know who we are until we look at the mountain...The marriage ends because I do not want to live with her anymore, because she is a good and proper person and this now feels like a cage. I do not want to leave my work at the office. I do not want to leave my work at all. I have entered a world that is black, sordid, vicious. And actual. I do not care what price I must pay to be in this world...I have spent almost all of my life in checkout lines with people of various colors...You either try to make things better or you wind up living without joy or much hope...”

  3. 5 out of 5

    Socraticgadfly

    And, he had warts. An alcoholic drinker perhaps worse than Cactus Ed Abbey. As much a womanizer as Cactus Ed, despite his callout of Abbey in "Red Caddy." (A fair amount of that book comes off as psychological projection; only on racism does Bowden seem truly clean of what he charges against Abbey. Maybe that's why he didn't have it published until after his death. But I digress.) This collection of essays talks about Bowden the journalist, which is what he saw his books as being — book-length re And, he had warts. An alcoholic drinker perhaps worse than Cactus Ed Abbey. As much a womanizer as Cactus Ed, despite his callout of Abbey in "Red Caddy." (A fair amount of that book comes off as psychological projection; only on racism does Bowden seem truly clean of what he charges against Abbey. Maybe that's why he didn't have it published until after his death. But I digress.) This collection of essays talks about Bowden the journalist, which is what he saw his books as being — book-length reporting. Fellow authors, editors, agents and others all weigh in on his skills, his insights, his craft. Bowden indeed told it like it was, from the destruction of desert habitat to the destruction of Mexico by NAFTA, which lies behind his series of books, articles for magazines and more, about Juarez in particular and the borderlands in general. Arguably the most provocative essay is by Leslie Marmon Silko. She says that already in Blue Desert, he was writing in a way that would become what she said of Gertrude Stein, Truman Capote and others — the non-fiction novel. She went on from there to his borderlands books, where she indicated that he had a lot of novelizing, and that this is part of why no Juarez drug lords offed him. He made them look so scary that they liked the PR. Same thing on the other side, she says. She made the DEA look so tough in fighting this that they liked the PR, too. She adds that she things she did much of the writing about this in Tucson, Las Cruces and spots in between, not in Juarez. In fact, she thinks that he didn’t actually stay in Juarez that long that often, especially after his first couple of books. Silko doesn’t claim he made it all up. Nor does she claim that, at the start, he made much of it up. She uses the word “exaggerate,” not “made up,” to introduce this section of thought. And, this is as much as guess of hers as anything. Nonetheless, as she notes that even while claiming to live in Tucson, his actual whereabouts were often a mystery, who knows? I definitely don't think she's all wet. Clara Jeffrey, after all, notes that editing Bowden sometimes required a lot of whacking, and that Bowden knew it (as with the ee cummings style in his PhD thesis) when submitting. That said, I think Silko misreads Bowden in another way, in one section of her distinguishing between Bowden the person and CB the literary narrator he created. She said he once, in a book, called environmentalists “prostitutes” but in real life was best buds with Dave Foreman of Earth First. Well, Foreman, like Abbey and probably like Bowden, would identify as “anarcho-libertarian” or something similar first. Bowden probably did think indeed that the likes of Sierra Club leadership were prostitutes. And so, “CB” thinking women should wear high heels and makeup? I’m sure Bowden did too. Bowden, per Silko talking about his relation with Santa Muerte, and other picking up on why he seemed to like the drug war narratives, reminds me a bit of Chris Hedges. More than a decade ago, Hedges said he was worried about getting addicted to war journalism. So, he decided to get out. And did. Bowden himself talked about “the children,” especially. But, whether he wanted to, or not, and per Silko, whether part of not getting out was staying in by proxy, he never got out. == To "qualify myself," I own Blue Desert and have re-read it more than once. I've read Desierto. I've read Bowden in magazines from Harper's to High Country News. This review will be expanded upon into a larger view of Bowden as person and author on my blog.

  4. 4 out of 5

    jennet wheatstonelllsl

  5. 4 out of 5

    Lydia

  6. 5 out of 5

    Jesse K

  7. 4 out of 5

    Jim Dertien

  8. 5 out of 5

    Joeann Fossland

  9. 4 out of 5

    Joel

  10. 5 out of 5

    J.P.

  11. 5 out of 5

    JML

  12. 5 out of 5

    Michael Newnham

  13. 4 out of 5

    Emma Hern

  14. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Stone

  15. 4 out of 5

    Sean

  16. 4 out of 5

    Kim

  17. 5 out of 5

    Kirk Astroth

  18. 5 out of 5

    Cathy

  19. 4 out of 5

    Steve

  20. 4 out of 5

    Natalie

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan Crocker

  22. 5 out of 5

    Amiee Maxwell

  23. 4 out of 5

    Gaelle Sinclair

  24. 5 out of 5

    Peter Hartsough

  25. 4 out of 5

    JR

  26. 4 out of 5

    Kat Curley

  27. 5 out of 5

    Thomas Hårstad Fonn

  28. 5 out of 5

    Heather

  29. 5 out of 5

    Cory

  30. 4 out of 5

    Gabriel Davis

  31. 5 out of 5

    Carol

  32. 5 out of 5

    Jena

  33. 4 out of 5

    Aaron

  34. 4 out of 5

    Robert Cojocaru

  35. 4 out of 5

    Julie

  36. 4 out of 5

    Carl

  37. 4 out of 5

    Chelby Nystrom

  38. 4 out of 5

    Mark Sherrill

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