"I Still Live": A Remembrance of Charles Bowden

Lessons from a life fueled in equal parts by anger and love.

| Wed Sep. 3, 2014 3:04 PM EDT
Charles Bowden
Charles Bowden at the 2010 Texas Book Festival Photo: Parker Haeg

"Clara, I still live…The story here is simple. The silence is not."

That he died in his sleep, and not at the hands of the cartels, or the coyotes, or dirty cops on either side of the border, is something. There were times when he'd sit with his back to the door and travel with a former member of the Federales for protection. But in the end, it wasn't one of the long line of people he pissed off and laid bare that finished him off. A flu likely did, probably with the help of hard living: the chain smoking and the sequential all-nighters and the alternating binges of black coffee and red wine. Charles Bowden was 69.

Chuck—never Charles—didn't write for money, one reason he wrote for me so often at both Harper's and Mother Jones. He didn't write for fame, either, though he's revered among people who cover the border and crime, and among writers who like voice and metaphor and can forgive occasional romantic excess. He would sometimes take an assignment an editor dreamed up, or one you'd discussed along the way, but just as often he'd dump 20,000 words on you out of the blue. Sure, you had to cut it in half somehow, and ground passages where the jazz got too free. But he was gracious about editing—"Oh hell, do what you want, I trust you"—and fact-checking (no small undertaking). He was a champion of the underdog, which included the migrants and dirt farmers, the maquiladora girls and asylum seekers he wrote about, but also the writers, poets, filmmakers, photographers, or artists whose careers he helped. He respected hard work, which could be work that was dangerous or epic in scope, but also hard in another way: tricky, gutting, soul-baring, a high-wire act.

Chuck was gifted to me by Colin Harrison, then deputy editor of Harper's. They'd worked on a piece before I came to the magazine in late 1995. "But I think a woman would be a better editor. It'll be interesting, anyway," I recall Colin saying. And maybe that's true—Chuck's writing was better when a few layers of machismo were pared away—but also Colin warned me that no conversation with Chuck came in under two hours. Once, I finally pulled the old-style receiver from my ear only to find that a vacuum seal had formed around it. "Bowden ear," I warned the fact-checkers.

But oh! Those calls! He'd range from how the rain sweeps down an arroyo to the works of Weegee to the proper preparation of veal bolognese. Gangsters, classical poets, the Keating Five, Fannie Lou Hamer, Gary Webb, things he'd covered or read or heard about, all coming together in one glorious baritone rumble punctuated by deep drags and sips of coffee or wine, depending on the time of day. If you devoted yourself utterly to following along, you might get about 80 percent of the allusions—wait…Nikola Tesla? Davis, meaning Miles or Angela or…—"Look, you follow? Look, you follow?" It was hard, sometimes, to say, "Uh, not really."

The first piece we worked on was "While You Were Sleeping." It begins with him contemplating a picture of a mummified corpse of a maquiladora worker likely raped, certainly killed and dumped in the desert outside Juárez. Chuck was one of the first American writers to document the women hunted by person or persons unknown as they made the long journey from their homes to the US factories brought into being by NAFTA. His writing is heart-wrenching, but it was his decision to tell the story through the eyes of the street photographers—Manuel Saenz, Jamie Bailleres, Gabriel Cardona, and Julian Cardona (who'd later accompany him on other reporting trips)—documenting the carnage ripping through Juárez that gave the piece real power:

Over the past two years, I have become a student of their work, because I think they are capturing something: the look of the future. This future is based on the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, and industrial growth producing poverty faster than it distributes wealth. We have models in our heads about growth, development, infrastructure. Juárez doesn't look like any of these images and so our ability to see this city comes and goes, mostly goes…These photographs literally give people of picture of an economic world they cannot comprehend. Juárez is not a backwater, but the new City on the Hill, beckoning us all to a grisly state of things.

When editors say stuff like "find your Virgil, find the figure that will help you tell the story behind the story," writers should take a page from Chuck Bowden, who had a novelist's eye for characters that could stand in for so much more. Take "Ike and Lyndon," perhaps the most esoteric piece of his I ever edited. In it he somehow used a man institutionalized for murdering his grandmother who spends his days painting portraits of the presidents to tell the story of a doomed president and the ghosts of Vietnam that haunt us all. Well, you'll just have to read it. (Harper's pieces are here behind a paywall. These essays and others are also in The Charles Bowden Reader, co-edited by his former partner, Mary Martha Miles.)

If I had to describe Chuck to somebody, not physically, necessarily, but the essence of him, it might be something like: part Bogart, part Sam Elliott in The Big Lebowski, no small dose of Matthew McConaughey in True Detective, the kind of guy who'd regale you with tales in a dive bar, and then walk you to your car—"always walk a woman to her car, no matter the time of day or night"—and then tell you where to get the best tacos before leaving you with a journalistic koan. Long before he'd made the border his life's work, he'd covered dark, dark things and was scarred by them. In "Torch Song," which was included in Best American Essays, he wrote of covering sex crimes and murders of little kids (for which he was a 1984 Pulitzer finalist), and how he retreated into a world of sex and drinking and suicide hikes through the desert, and discovered that the line between commonplace betrayals and kinks and those deeper, darker horrors is not as brightly demarcated as you'd thought, knowledge that was something you can never recover from, not really.

Somewhere in those hours my second marriage ends. I know why. I too, tend to say yes. The marriage ends because I do not want to live with her anymore, because she is a good a 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 it at all. I have entered a world that is black, sordid, vicious. And actual. And I do not care what price I must pay to be in this world.

That piece is largely about how people can't bring themselves to face the realities of rape and abuse, despite them being the hidden back story of so many lives. It was hard to edit; I sometimes dreaded our calls. I didn't have a child then. I tried to read it through yesterday and couldn't.


It is, of course, reporting on the border for which Bowden is best known. His book Down by the River (one of many) recalls how two DEA agents search for the truth behind the murder of their brother at the hands of a 13-year-old from Juárez and destroy their family in the process—all while telling the story of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the (now dead) kingpin of the Juárez cartel who haunts so many of Bowden's stories. In Exodus, which first appeared in Mother Jones and later became a book, he traveled back and forth across the border to tell the story of the migrants:

Here is the basic script: You get off a bus you have ridden for days from the Mexican interior, increasingly from the largely Indian states far to the south. This is the end of your security. On the bus, you had a seat, your own space. Now you enter a feral zone. With money, you can buy space in a flop ($3 a night) and get a meal of chicken, rice, beans, and tortillas (about $2.50). You stare out on an empty desert unlike any ground you have ever seen. Men with quick eyes look you over, the employees of coyotes, people smugglers. On the bus, you were a man or a woman or a child. Now you are a pollo, a chicken, and you need a pollero, a chicken herder.

You will never be safe, but for the next week or so, you will be in real peril. If you sleep in the plaza to save money, thugs will rob you in the night or, if you are a woman, have their way with you. If you cut a deal with a coyote's representative (and 80 to 90 percent do), you still must buy all that black clothing and gear, house and feed yourself. Then one day, when you are told to move, you'll get in a van with 20 to 40 other pollos and ride 60 miles of bumps and dust to la línea. Each passenger pays $25. The vans do not move with fewer than 17, prefer at least 20, and do, at a minimum, three trips a day. A friend of mine recently did the ride and counted 58 vans moving out in two hours…In this sector of the line, the 262-mile-long Tucson Sector, a few hundred will officially die each year. Others will die and rot in the desert and go uncounted. A year ago, a woman from Zacatecas disappeared in late June. Her father came up and searched for weeks to find her body in the desert, a valley of several hundred square miles. He stumbled on three other corpses before finding the remains of his own child.

In "We Bring Fear," his last piece for Mother Jones, he told the story of Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, a Mexican journalist fleeing north for his life, not from the cartels per se, but the Mexican Army units working with them. In "The Sicario," his last piece for Harper's (edited by the amazing John Jeremiah Sullivan Bill Wasik), he told the tale of a former cartel hit man who'd dismember and bathe people in acid while keeping them alive via adrenaline shots just to torture them a bit more. There was the story for Esquire where he attempted to and largely succeeded in redeeming Gary Webb, the journalist who came under attack after claiming the CIA had aided inner-city drug dealers in a ploy to help fund the Contras. (Despite that piece and others vindicating much of his reporting, Webb killed himself, something that Bowden never got over.)

Bowden got all these people to open up to him because he liked a good story, even if it came from a "bad" person, and besides, there's no good or bad on the border, "there is only this fact: We either find a way to make their world better or they will come to our better world."
 

I got the call from Scott Carrier on Saturday, near midnight. Scott, who's a writer and radio producer—if you've ever heard "Running After Antelope" or any of his other This American Life pieces, you'll remember them—and Chuck had been friends and mutual admirers for years. He'd once interviewed Chuck talking about writing in a short film by Lisa Miller, every writer should watch it (posted below, as are links to other eulogies). I'd seen Scott just a few months before. Had he seen Chuck recently? I'd asked then. Scott hadn't. He'd been dealing with some hard times, he explained, and didn't want to burden his friend. I told him I'd heard Chuck was not doing well, and maybe Scott would go see him? I put this to Scott because I knew he'd do it—when my car broke down as I made the cross-country trip moving to California, he drove me from Salt Lake City to San Francisco, took a nap, and turned around to drive the 736 miles back—and because I was still a little angry by proxy for Chuck's former partner, another "nice and proper" woman who'd been left behind. Mostly, though, I was probably just feeling ashamed that I'd let so much time elapse since the last time I'd enjoyed "Bowden ear."

Scott did go see Chuck, on assignment from High Country News to write a profile of him (due out next month). And so Molly Molloy, Chuck's current partner—a journalist behind the border news site Frontera List who'd who'd helped Chuck (and our fact-checkers) with the story of Emilio—called Scott within a few hours of finding Chuck's body.


There's a pending autopsy, but does it matter exactly what killed him? There was a lot of hard living, though less of late, Molly says. But Scott believes and I believe that it was the toxic residue of what he saw and reported—which he sometimes claimed he'd quit trying to do, before going on another binge of reporting and writing—that was the underlying cause. "A literary career should be not a career but a passion. A life. Fueled in equal parts by anger and love." So wrote Edward Abbey in "A Writer's Credo," one of Chuck's touchstones. Chuck kept going because he loved to write. And because he kept hoping his work would lead to change, but it never did, not really, not in a big way, not enough. He'd write about how the migration, the globalization, the forces of addiction and lucre and deviance were as unstoppable as hurricanes. But part of him needed to believe that he'd stop at least some of it. If not him, who?

"He wanted me to do it, he wanted other people to do it, because he didn't want to be alone out there," says Scott. "I'd ask: 'Why do you do this?' And he was like, 'Why the fuck don't you?' He didn't say that out loud. He never did. To me or to anyone. But I think he thought that all the time."

 

Here's a collection of eulogies and pieces about Chuck Bowden:

Charles Bowden drawing
Drawing of Chuck Bowden courtesy of the artist Alice Leora Briggs