Into the Unknown with Charles Bowden and Edward Abbey

Scott Carrier begins his foreword to the forthcoming reissue of Charles Bowden’s Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing with a caveat:

Instead of a foreword I should start with a forewarning to those with a desire to feel safe—put this book down and walk away now.

The warning applies as well to Bowden’s book The Red Caddy, just published nearly four years after his death and eighteen years after he wrote it. In fact, Bowden begins this book with a “HOLD HARMLESS AGREEMENT: warning, vehicle not equipped with seat belts or air bags.”

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It wasn’t hard to be friends with Abbey, Bowden writes: “He was reasonably polite, didn’t shit on the floor, and was well read.”

How do you write about a friend? (That he asks the question and then explores possible answers makes him, for my taste, a writer I can learn from.) Bowden says writing about a friend requires details and contradictions that unsettle what you know and enrich your uncertainty:

There is a clutter to life that ideas can never tolerate or make go away. To unravel something, you have to have a thesis. But to understand the dead ends, back alleys, and side roads of life itself, you have to mistrust your thesis and constantly keep an eye on it lest it blind you to detail, contradiction, lust, love, and loneliness. I can’t write about a friend and make it neat and tidy unless I intend to kill my friend. And this is not my intention. To be an expert on someone you know, I truly believe, is never to have known them at all. Which is why we assign such work to scholars. We say they will be objective, while we ourselves cannot promise such a feat. But we also think they can be certain, while we cannot comprehend such a fantasy. To really know someone, to break bread with them and talk and drink and laugh and argue, is much like knowing an ecosystem. You can get the drift, draw a map, know many trails, but the more you know the more convinced you become that absolute knowing is impossible.

And so Charles Bowden tells stories, damning stories and endearing stories, stories as much about himself as about Abbey. I hear both of their voices — Bowden’s resonant from deep barrel and Abbey’s a clipped monotone — in this book. I’m sorry they are no longer with us. I’m grateful for their books.

…………………………………….

Writing about The Red Caddy takes me back to the review I wrote about Bowden’s book Inferno. The night I first met Bowden, standing in Ken Sanders’ kitchen, eating Ken’s barbecue and drinking beer, I introduced myself to Bowden (more than a little nervous, or perhaps shy is a better word) and mentioned that I had reviewed the book. Yes, he said, you’re the only reviewer who understood the book.

Reading and writing about a book by an author you respect and perhaps even adore while squirming at what he is saying is humbling and exacting. In the back of my head while I write anything are the critical voices of writers I know and whose critical praise I want to deserve. Here the review first published in Catalyst Magazine:

 

“Supposing truth to be a woman – ” Nietzsche wrote at the beginning of  Beyond Good and Evil; “what did philosophers, at least the dogmatic ones, know about women? Weren’t the ghastly seriousness and the awkward thrusting with which they have always approached truth unimaginative and unseemly tools to win, of all things, a woman?”

inferno, Charles Bowden’s new book (with striking black-and-white photos by Michael Berman, and with an exquisite design that values print as it does image) knows all about truth being a woman. The book’s sometimes hallucinatory, often contradictory, and always white-hot prose is a supple and sensuous organ of seduction.

The woman in question is a patch of Arizona desert, and this woman too has had relations with William Jefferson Clinton, who, as one of his last acts as President, in response to lobbying by Bowden and others, established the Sonoran Desert National Monument.

Bowden sits “on the ground of a great desert. . . . I’ve come here because this place has always worked for me and has forced me to surrender the buzz of my ideas and taste the limits of my power.”

In the hours before dawn, sipping a cup of espresso made on a little camp stove, Bowden chases thoughts and memories with the exquisitely bitter coffee and his fierce, rampant desire to live outside his mind:

“Or I should have been a dog. . . the eyes bold, the manner cunning, running up the wash, running for miles, slipping under the barbed wire, dodging the mesquite, the cholla, the prickly pear, snorting down the books written in the air, eyes cocked for danger, nose alive to the noise of scent, the muscles toned and pulsing, lungs gulping air, feet hard and taking the rocks with ease, a blur moving through the tall grass by the washes, weaving in and out of the bottom land, hawks in the sky, idling, noting the passage, coyotes wary but alert to an opportunity, in sync with everything as the sun falls down, wary of snakes, eager for the miles, and then suddenly at the door of a house where I lived edging the great desert.”

“Or the snakes,” he writes, “unblinking, watching and ever so good at waiting. I see them as a door into the miasma and the messy smear . . . where I want to go. . . . Inside, I want inside, toss the guidebooks, to hell with the anatomical detail . . . take me inside to the place I cannot find inside myself, at least not often or easily . . . the place where unconscious and conscious cease to have meaning.”

He thinks/tastes/smells his way inside badgers and owls, hummingbirds and bighorn sheep, back into dogs: “into that miasma, the same one within me, the place inside the cells, the place hidden inside the word mind, the thing flowing through the nostrils of a dog sucking in the literature of a wet spot and reading millions of years of life in a flash.”

Wine and sex and drugs and the tiny cup of hot espresso keep Bowden’s mind at bay, keep him focused on the woman who is the desert: “I think that is why I hate nature writing. . . . Hate it because it seeks a throb, a big moment, a chamber of time full of meaning and narrative and song and story and fails to know the scraping of the shoes on the bumpy ground. . . . because all it is or ever can be is what flows into my eyes and nostrils and across the blank sheet of the place where my mind once festered.”

“I also worry,” he writes, “that people with a deep interest in the natural world seem to lack a deep interest in burlesque, makeup, high heel and the Kamasutra. .  .  .”

And here the crux of Bowden’s approach to the desert, to the woman: APPETITE. The appetite to possess is killing the world (seen in an amazing, contradictory portrait of a Mexican truck driver preparing lines of cocaine and a 12-pack of Tecate beer for a quick 1000-mile haul of consumer goods). Yet only appetite, animal appetite, is the truth of the desert (and in the Mexican’s appetites Bowden finds his own). “What if,” he asks, “when we get out here on the hot ground in the August night, we discover that this is the way it should be but cannot be for our kind. And that is the very reason we must preserve it – not for beauty, biology or God and country, but so that we can always know the place we dream of being, the place we cannot belong. The place for our yearning.”

“You want to live ‘according to nature’?” Nietzsche asks in Beyond Good and Evil. “You noble Stoics, what a fraudulent use of words! Consider a being like nature, profligate beyond counting, absolutely indifferent, aimless, merciless, without pity and justice, simultaneously fecund and desolate and uncertain, consider indifference itself as power – how could you live according to this indifference? Living – isn’t that simply the desire to be other than this nature? . . . Your pride wants to force your morals, your ideas onto nature; you demand that nature be ‘nature according to the Stoics. . . .’”

Bowden’s nature (and yes, he’s aware that it is “his nature”) is anything but.

About Scott Abbott

Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University, 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I'm Director of the Program in Integrated Studies and former Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade), and translations of a book by Austrian author Peter Handke and of a catalogue of an exhibit called "The German Army and Genocide." More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as a watershed scientist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a corrections officer, as university students, and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett and our yellow dog Blue. Some publications at http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/
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2 Responses to Into the Unknown with Charles Bowden and Edward Abbey

  1. nemadude says:

    I imagine reading a book that you write about Sam, or that Sam writes about you, that would read like the Red Caddy. You get just a hint of that in “Wild Rides and Wildflowers”.

    Like

    • Scott Abbott says:

      that would be a fun task. a hard task. maybe an impossible task. bowden didn’t ever publish this biography. maybe it felt too honest, too close to the bone, even though abbey was dead

      Like

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