I don’t remember what it was turned me on to Charles Bowden. (It might have been Hearing Voices, maybe even this episode. Or this one. That podcast has introduced me to several writers I should have been reading long ago.) However it was I heard his name, I went and dug up what I could find of his online, mining the Harper’s archive especially. And I was astonished at what I found. Is there a better essayist writing in America today?
What is Bowden’s work like? There are several ways in which Bowden and David Simon are similar, aside from their subject matter (both have written at length about the drug war and its consequences on their regions). Though Bowden remains a long-form journalist while Simon left that world behind to become a television producer in the 1990s, both writers put reporting at the heart of what they do.1 Bowden and Simon also write in the space between sociopolitical forces (Bowden: narcotrafficking, immigration, civic corruption, globalization, immigration/emigration; Simon: narcotics, cities, lingering effects of racial oppression, entrenched power of bureaucracy) and human attempts (not to say successes) to survive in the face of those forces. Both writers take darkness as a given, assuming that attempts to do good are successes in spite of ourselves and worth some amount of quiet admiration, if not congratulations. And it is particularly those who have highest to rise who warrant the most scrutiny, such as the junkie who turns his life around or the sicario (hit-man) who finds God and the strength to escape from his cartel.
Bowden’s work is underpinned by a knowledge that writing has real and sometimes terrible consequences. In “Torch Song,” a memoir of his time working as a reporter on the city desk at the Tucson Citizen, Bowden reveals the articles he wrote about rape and molestation resulted in civic rage and personal sexual conquest; in “Teachings of Don Fernando,” a eulogy for a drug informant—scratch that, the best eulogy for a drug informant ever written—he claims that an article he wrote for GQ hastened the death of Amado Carillo Fuentes, head of the Juarez drug cartel in the 1990s. A lesser writer would avoid admitting so much. But what brings Bowden to make them? Is it braggadoccio? Inflated self-regard? I can see how one might say either: he has Western roots and he writes about drug traffickers and murderers whom he both despises and admires (or neither despises nor admires, which amounts to the same thing), a stance that can be maddening; he has a gravely, poetically masculine voice that comes across in print. His essays are gripped by a clear notion of causality: actions—even inadvertent actions, such as staring too long at a parade of killers in Juarez—have real consequences. This clarity makes him an astute reader of the current scene, such as in his March 2000 essay “Ike and Lyndon,” ostensibly a meditation on Lyndon Johnson and an artist in a Texas mental hospital, which also uncovers the zeitgeist that made George W. Bush inevitable. Just his work in Harper’s is a remarkable collection. I’m looking forward to reading his books soon.
1 The reporter’s role raises a distinct difference between Bowden and Simon. Bowden’s journalistic bent is to insist he is at the center of the stories he tells. In contrast, Simon is an omniscient narrator, convinced I suppose of the journalist’s ability to tell a story without becoming a part of it.