Are we all cannibals? Charles Bowden thinks so. The way he sees it, human beings have transformed the world with our rampaging hungers, devouring the land and, inevitably, ourselves. In the face of this encroaching devastation Bowden testifies with devout fervor on behalf of what’s left. From his home in Arizona he writes about the desert wilderness being consumed by civilization, about Mexico being consumed by the United States, about women being consumed by men, and–first, last, and always–about his own mind, consumed by his own desires. A passionate moralist, Bowden’s no innocent; he’s got religion but he’s chased by demons, too.
In Blues for Cannibals: Notes from Underground, his latest book, Bowden continues the delirious testimony he first offered in his cult classic Blood Orchid, which is being reissued at the same time. Visceral, violent, and occasionally overwrought, Bowden’s work isn’t for everyone. But no one writes the way he does about the Southwest–its singular landscape, inhabitants, and history.
Blues for Cannibals brings together several previously published essays, all written in Bowden’s trademark style, a hybrid of reportage-meets-beat poetry that might be called hallucinogenic journalism. Mostly centered around Tucson and its environs, the chapters of the book cover topics as diffuse as sex crimes, the death penalty, the corruption of labor unions, and the deaths of several of Bowden’s friends from cancer.
Bracketing these reported sections are swatches of undiluted philosophy in which Bowden declaims and proclaims like some guy in a bar late at night who won’t stop talking to you. The gist of the speech is that the world can be divided into two camps (the dividing line, for Bowden’s purposes, being the border). On the side of evil are corporate villains, greedy governments, forces of globalization and exploitation, and the United States. Bowden’s critique of the world is neither political nor economic but poetic, and readers looking for substantial arguments about how to stop these forces of evil will not find them here. Blues for Cannibals makes a more general plea for emotion over indifference. “The city is cold,” Bowden writes, “the modern world is cold, the flesh is there but people find it easier to hit than to touch, and the easiest thing of all is not to make a move, to sit and watch until your shift is over.”
On the side of good are the poor, the disenfranchised, children, and Mexico. To represent the scraggly survival of these few angels, Bowden chooses the mesquite tree. Once considered a nuisance, the mesquite tree now thrives in the desert, and in its gnarled branches Bowden finds a symbol of resistance to oppression and a life force to combat death. If this symbol sounds like it’s hitting you over the head, it is. Subtlety isn’t Bowden’s strong suit, and every time the book returned to a scene of him watering the mesquite trees in his back yard while drinking a bottle of red wine, I confess I groaned inwardly a bit.
But subtlety is hardly the point here. Conviction and righteous anger are. Bowden writes with a searing force whose impact cannot be denied. And like a lot of barflies, between the digressions and the rhetorical flourishes, he has a wealth of interesting stories to tell. When he focuses his attention on those stories, his prose shakes off the weight of all that philosophizing, and it just flies.
In the book’s highlight–or, more accurately, lowlight–Bowden recounts his days as a young reporter on the sex crimes beat. No one else will cover the horrendous stories of rapes, assaults, and child molestation, but Bowden does, and the longer he immerses himself in this murky and devastating world the closer he comes to feeling like a monster himself:
“Someone will ask me what I’m working on and I’ll say “Kiddiefuck.” Or I’ll recount to someone how I prowl through the police blotter savoring the rapes of the night, the woman who leaves the bar at one a.m. with the stranger, no, can’t sell her, the woman who decides at three a.m. to take a walk in shortshorts and a halter to the all-night market for a pack of cigarettes and then gets bagged, she’s out too.”
Bowden is angry in this essay because he feels that society doesn’t want to acknowledge the reality of these sex crimes or their place on a continuum with other hungers. (We’re more comfortable saying, “I could kill somebody,” he points out, than talking about our sexual desires.) He keeps mentioning that his friends refuse to read his articles, although his indignation on this point is somewhat undercut by the fact that the newspaper he writes for continually assigns and prints his work; an audience surely exists for these lurid accounts.
Bowden’s own voracious sexual appetite threads through his descriptions of the horrific crimes he encountered. Women are constantly showing up at his door, confessing to having been the victims of rape or assault, and then baring their breasts. Night after night they offer themselves to him, walking symbioses of sex and violence; they seem to have no other function in life but to arouse his specifically male guilt and lust. Yet the creepier this essay gets the more persuasive it is. It wraps around you a shadow world of inescapable prurience and filth. You feel soiled just by reading it.
Another strong chapter finds Bowden staying at the Blue Mist Motel across from a penitentiary where a man is scheduled for execution. Michael Poland and his brother Patrick robbed an armored truck, killed the two drivers, and got away with $300,000. They drove the bodies to Lake Mead, on the border of Nevada and California, and dumped them over, and they would have gotten away with the crime had the bodies not hit a shelf, leaving them only 25 feet underwater, eventually to wash up again.
Michael Poland, the mastermind behind the crime, is about to die, although he suffers from a delusion that he has some supernaturally endowed power to prevent his execution. Caught between his own judgment that Poland isn’t fit to walk the earth and his equally strong conviction that the death penalty is wrong, Bowden wrestles with his beliefs, and in the process he brings Poland–a manic, controlling, weirdly compelling figure–to life. Bowden gets hold of Poland’s letters to his family and can’t stop reading them, even though he finds his own actions terrible.
“I wince when he promises his wife that he will get contacts and rid himself of the ugly glasses he knows she finds unatttractive,” he writes. “I am invading what little privacy a man locked on death row can still possess and I do not approve of my prying eyes. Then I go back to my reading.” Like many other sections of the book, the Poland essay eventually circles back to Bowden, sitting by himself, nursing a glass of red wine and feeling like hell. Even after all that wine he is unable to reconcile his duelling beliefs, and the essay fades to a frustrating and credible and honest close.
At other moments in Blues for Cannibals, the intensity of Bowden’s jazzed-up style can grate. His eulogies for lost friends, for example, are morose and personal–surrounded by sickness, he grows obsessed with Italian cooking, and puts together a lot of appetizing-sounding meals–but not especially instructive. A more conspicuous problem is that he isn’t always as intent on elaborating his own prejudices as he is in the chapter on sex crimes. This is particularly noticeable whenever Mexico comes up. Mexico in these essays is realer than real, or at least realer than it is here in the United States. It’s dusty and lawless and authentic in a way that we Americans, safe in our strip malls and subdivisions, can never hope–or despair–to be.
Assigned to write a story about Mexican truckers, Bowden crosses the border by foot and instantly comes upon this ur-reality, as embodied by a mural of Che Guevara: “I leaned on the railing of the bridge and looked at Che, ignoring the Indian woman squatting on the ground by my feet, her hand outstretched for coins, her dirty child underfoot,” he reminisces. “God, I loved the smells coming off the city, the stench from the river, the whiff of garbage, the perfume of the young girls, the diesel fumes from the trucks, and Che looking up into history and behind him on the big hill over Juarez a message in stone that shouted THE BIBLE IS THE TRUTH.”
This is a risky rhetorical game, and the fact that Bowden clearly does love Mexico and the entire border region with a sincere passion doesn’t necessarily make his mythologizing any more palatable. In the past he has gotten into some trouble for playing loose with the facts in writing about Mexico, evoking it as a place of nameless violence at the expense of the real complexity of life there. And certainly he seems more interested in poetry than documentation; all his descriptions serve to maximize the book’s sense of legend and symbol (see also women, and that mesquite tree).
Yet he can be forgiven. The reason is that every page of Blues for Cannibals drips with emotion and heat. And this, along with his real talent, makes it worthwhile reading for anyone who cares about the Southwest. There are sentences in this book that are tormented and annoying, and others that will stop your heart. In the end, the way he conjures up the world–the way he bends your ear at that bar, filling the smoky air with his strange and violent tales–is so damn interesting, you just have to listen.
Alix Ohlin is a graduate of UT’s Michener Center for Writers. Her first novel is forthcoming from Knopf.