Oyster Boy Review 18  
  Winter 2003–4
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» Levee 67


Blues for Cannibals, by Charles Bowden

Corvin Thomas

  Blues for Cannibals: The Notes from Underground.
Charles Bowden.
North Point Press, 2002.
304 pages, $24 (hardcover).
ISBN: 0865476241

There is a drug feeling. It's all stomach, a body sitting on a stomach, soft and sick and afraid of getting worse . . . softer and sicker. It sucks in, the feeling, swallowing all motivation to move. And it's full of regret, a sorry for ingesting the boredom antidote for something even more boring, just as paralyzing. Life. You pick up a book. You want something linear, something easy to follow, something to ease the nausea of the nausea that started the stomach rolling in the first place. But you don't get it. Not if you're reading Charles Bowden. Not if the book is Blues for Cannibals.

What you get is slight flights and eye flutters, clear recognition of wrecks and wrongs that nod into vague foundations of history dreams. The Yaquis. Poncho Villa. The Vietnamese. LBJ. He tracks the dreams like hunting for heads, humming a torch song in a hotel room where the blood of a baby's murder still stains the wall, where the dirty corner television whispers a union leader's propaganda that America's still strong.

Charles Bowden is a newspaperman. He's assigned the victims nobody wants, and he loves them. He resuscitates the murdered and the murderers. He packs their postmortem into the drug runner's desert, shaking his head.

"I am in a bar in a distant city with a district attorney. He shouts to the barkeep, 'Hey, give this guy a drink. One of our perverts whacked a kid in his town.'

"The bartender pours and says, 'Way to go.'

"I drink without a word."

Charles Bowden is a friend who watches friends die of cancer, of dead livers, of suicide, all victims of a lie called security.

"I live in a time when death is off the table, the thing unsaid. We wish to live forever and because of this desire, we hardly live at all."

Charles Bowden is a pantheist in a fading land of consumption.

"I want something very simple: to be that mesquite root found alive at one hundred and seventy-eight feet in hard rock, a root shaped like a cock and probing for a wet place, or shaped like a finger on a mother's hand and reaching out to touch the face of love . . ."

And Charles Bowden dines on dirt, earth cuisine, the only truth on a menu of death, grief, and fear.

"I would believe in the words of solace if they included fresh polenta with a thickened brown sauce of shitake and porcini mushrooms."

Bowden minds beauty in the sadness of the man eater's shit, the gated community consumerism, the fraud of plastic surgery and bank accounts, the blasphemy of the Che Guevara billfold. And the beauty is simple: rain, a last meal, a bottle at dusk, the sound of a westbound train with a serial killer's legs dangling from the side of one of its empty boxcars. The serial killer will die: the death penalty. But more will follow. There is no security. It can't be bought or convicted. There's only desire, the spirit to survive the cannibals for whom the blues are sung.

"Eat. Lust. Caress. Fight. Swallow."

That drug feeling won't go away, the soft, sick stomach, nor the need to do it again. This is not rehab. It's an indictment, a confirmation of what we know. Escape is optional but temporal. Life still lies ahead. Shoot up, snort, drink, paralyze yourself again and again. But nothing changes when the belly settles and the vomit dries.

"Find a life to choose," Bowden says.

Or not.