"Blues for Cannibals" by Charles Bowden

Another writer tries to shock us out of our bourgeois complacency with seedy tales of life in the gutter. Isn't this shtick getting pretty stale?

By Michelle Goldberg

Published March 13, 2002 10:28PM (EST)

For decades, American writers have mined the country's gutters for the sordid truth seething beneath middle-class sterility. The assumption that a vein of depraved authenticity throbs hidden beneath an anodyne surface that only rubes mistake for reality is intrinsic to much of our best literature. It's in Henry Miller, the Beats, Charles Bukowski, Hunter S. Thompson and William Vollmann. Miller said it well in "The Tropic of Capricorn": "The continent is full of buried violence, of the bones of antediluvian monsters and of lost races of man, of mysteries which are wrapped in doom ... The whole continent is a huge volcano whose crater is temporarily concealed by a moving panorama which is partly dream, partly fear, partly despair."

To be really awake, Miller implied, meant staying face to face with monsters. "[E]ven the existent pathologic monsters who find their way into the police station are but feeble demonstrations of the monstrous reality which the pathologist lives with," he wrote. "But to be the monster and the pathologist at the same time -- that is reserved for certain species of men who, disguised as artists, are supremely aware that sleep is an even greater danger than insomnia."

These festering depths with all their monsters tend to be seen as both an indictment of our sickness and as a shortcut to truth. It may be ugly underground, but according to literary myth only by getting down among the whores and criminals and outlaws could a man (these writers are always men) slough off America's illusions and touch something brutal and real.

Norman Mailer's 1957 screed "The White Negro" was a whole manifesto to this effect. In it, he celebrated the hipster, exemplified by the Beats, as the opposite of the reviled flannel-suited Babbitt, a "philosophical psychopath" liberated from "the prison air of other people's habits, other people's defeats, boredom, quiet desperation and muted icy self-destroying rage." Violence, Mailer suggested, could explode the confines of stultifying banality. "Hip, which would return us to ourselves, at no matter what price in individual violence, is the affirmation of the barbarian," he wrote.

Presumably at one time such an idea was threatening to the bourgeois status quo. By now, though, endless repetition has turned it into conventional wisdom. Our culture is littered with righteous outlaws and homicidal wise men -- Mafia dons such as the Corleones, preacherly hipster hitmen like Jules Winnfield in "Pulp Fiction" and serial killer geniuses like Hannibal Lecter. The philosophical psychopath is no longer just a liberating fantasy -- he's one of the great American archetypes. Mailer thought such figures could get beneath the chimerical panorama Miller wrote of. Instead, they've become part of it.

Yet no matter how often the vicious underbelly of American dreams is revealed to us, the trope that a tour through some domestic underworld is a bracing if ugly antidote to stultification just won't die. In his massive 2000 novel "The Royal Family," William Vollmann drew parallels between the frenetic consumption of a middle-class San Francisco office worker and that of the city's voracious whores, johns and junkies -- the biggest difference between them being that the demimonde at least had heart. This was meant, he told me in an interview that year, as an oblique critique of consumerism.

And now Charles Bowden gives us "Blues for Cannibals," which is, in the words of its jacket copy, a real-life quest "to discover the headwaters of sickness that seeps through the American soul." To that end, Bowden's fever-gush of a book takes us through a newspaper sex-crimes beat, a mental hospital where a killer churns out paintings of presidents, an execution and an art opening featuring works by a friend's son who committed suicide. It's part essay, part rant and part memoir, interspersed with meditations on nature, desert, roots and rootlessness, as well as riffs on all the appetites -- for food, for sex, for booze and for life.

In his previous books including "Mezcal," "Red Line" and "Blood Orchid," Bowden, who writes for Harper's, Esquire and GQ, came off like the last of the Beats. He was a child of the '60s, hurling himself around North America, his autobiographical prose a lusty torrent of sex and sensation. "Mezcal" begins like an amalgam of Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac, with Bowden speeding toward Mexico with two young friends in an amphetamine and marijuana haze. "Red Line" has him journeying through Mexico seeking the life story of a murdered murderer and drug dealer. Even "Blood Orchid," his furious chronicle of American environmental destruction, is more gonzo than Greenpeace, focusing on drug dealers and skid-row Indians along with issues like nuclear waste.

In much of Bowden's writing, the sickness of the earth and the sickness of society become one and the same. "Blues for Cannibals," though, is much more concerned with the latter -- here, when he writes of plants and soil, it's as a refuge from the world's horrors. Cannibalism is his metaphor for the evils people do to each other, and it's a good one, though he doesn't take it far enough. In fact, our penchant for cultural cannibalism may be the reason that Bowden's subterranean shriek fails to make much of an impact.

It's hard to argue with Bowden's diagnosis of modern life's ills -- "There is something missing, some vivid touch that the cool computer screens we now all stare into at work and at home cannot deliver. The last common feeling we have is depression, and it is so common, we only notice it when we cannot bear any longer to go on. We can grow hair on our heads and stuff new breasts in our chests and suck fat from our hides but we cannot seem to paste a smile on our faces." But he does very little to link these observations to his book's various ghouls.

The book is subtitled "The Notes From Underground," and like the narrator of the Dostoevski novel he references, Bowden seems to believe that he's privy to hideous truths that most of us are too deluded to see. The most annoying thing about "Blues for Cannibals" is the assumption that readers need to be roused from their torpor by Bowden's incantations, beautiful as they are. "Find a life to choose," he writes. "Don't look at the mail or be swept away by the vast driftnet of cyberspace. Go to ground. Tear away the film. Eyes open now, there are no secrets with eyes open."

I suppose it's to open our eyes that Bowden leads us on his guided tour of hell. Yet that's just the problem -- the assumption that we can be shocked awake by the spectacle of sickness. Bowden doesn't romanticize his various lowlife subjects, but he does present them as a window into some heightened reality, and at times, he betrays an admiration for the way some of them fuck with established order. Writing of a Mexican serial killer who travels America by rail, Bowden says, "He is fearless and rides through our nights, penetrating our gated community. At least two hundred people now do nothing, absolutely nothing, but try and keep up with him. He has become an obsession for a nation of more than a quarter billion souls. Imagine that, a human ant colony struck numb by one fellow riding the rails. Perhaps he sings Woody Guthrie songs as he is hurled through our entrails." Like generations of writers before him, He sees killers as embodiments of the national id.

Bowden tells us that he's telling us things people don't want to know, suggesting there's something transgressive about what he's doing. In the book's long section about this three years as a reporter covering sex crimes, he repeats a sentence that for him distills the widespread attitude toward his grisly subject -- "Don't talk about it, no one wants to hear these things."

I don't think this is true. If people didn't want to hear these things then JonBenet wouldn't sell newspapers and we wouldn't have "Law and Order Special Victims Unit," an entire prime time television show showcasing a new sex crime every week. We wouldn't have hit movies like "Silence of the Lambs" or "The Cell," nor the wildly successful genre of true-crime books, which describe the atrocities of serial killers and other criminals in exhaustive detail. The fact is, almost everyone wants to hear these things, especially everyone likely to read Bowden's book, the jacket of which advertises the killers and pedophiles to be found within.

In Bowden's writing, the big unutterable secret about sex crimes seems to be that they're titillating. He has kinky sex with a therapist who treats victims. The mother of a molested child bares her breasts to him during a conversation about abuse. He realizes that "We all share a biology and deep drives and what we have created -- civilization, courtesy, decency -- is a mesh that comes from these drives and also contains and tames them. I learn that whatever is bad is not necessarily alien to me. Or you."

But don't we all know this by now? Isn't it clear to everyone that human nature harbors ghastly impulses? Does another recitation of kiddie killings do anything to illuminate the dark corners of the soul?

Bowden calls us cannibals because we tear each other apart and feed on the lives of the famous. He writes of Hollywood illusions, "The stars devoured each other and then devoured us as we sat in the audience, and finally we were all devoured together as we became one big movie and stopped fussing with our dull, unscripted lives ... We are cannibals now. We can devour and take but cannot give."

Yet the cannibalism analogy can be taken a lot further than spectators' thrall to glamour. Our whole culture is devoted to cannibalizing its own depravities. The everyday grotesqueries of the America that Bowden purports to reveal are on display daily on "Cops" or Jerry Springer. That's why shock art now feels flaccid, and why Bowden's litany of the mutilated lacks the power he intends. There's not much to be gained by giving us yet another peek.

It's not that Charles Bowden, or anyone else, shouldn't explore our air-conditioned nightmare. Indeed, when he does it often yields great writing. The passages about the death of his feelings as he worked on the sex crimes beat are shattering -- he manages to convey a simultaneous numbness and rawness. He explores the territory where desire and disgust overlap and makes us understand how immersion in sexual anguish twists his own lusts into something painful. The chapter when he describes observing the execution of a cold-blooded and probably crazy murderer is an amazing, unsentimental evocation of the horrid banality of death by bureaucracy -- details of the buffet set out for the witnesses are particularly chilling.

The problem comes when he presents all this as a salutatory jolt for readers befogged by modern life. In one section, he juxtaposes a reconsideration of LBJ with the story of the mental patient who cranks out portraits of presidents. Bowden frequently expresses contempt for historians and implies that the essence of our era can better be found in this madman's art: "I got up one day and had a notion: that in the state mental hospital in Austin, Texas, one Ike Edward Morgan, diagnosed psychotic, was capturing the color and fury and song -- well, some of the song, since Ike is an eight-track man loyal to the musical technology loose in the republic at the time he was locked up -- and love and history of my times." This is a rather large claim to make, and it's symptomatic of Bowden's fidelity to the Beat credo that he doesn't bother to explain it. We're supposed to take it on faith that this man has some privileged access to the genuine because of his craziness, his bloody past (he murdered his grandmother with a butcher knife) and his distance from power.

Immersion in sex crimes didn't catapult Bowden into a higher plane of awareness -- rather, they made him shut down. Given that, it seems strange that he expects these tales to wake us up. He tells us at the beginning that "I am talking about the senses, about feelings, about the joy of song and the punch of death. Not certain types of feelings but being able to feel, and more important, being willing." The things he confronts us with are supposed to reinvigorate us, but in his own experience a surfeit of violence does the opposite. His interludes about food, wine and gardening are enlivening, but the evil he shows us in most of the book isn't. At best, it's entertainment. Instead of an alternative to cannibalism, it's just another snack.

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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