Images haunt Bowden's America

By Lewis Harper

Special for the Arizona Daily Wildcat

Faster than you can flip channels with your television's remote control, Tucson writer Charles Bowden shifts images in his new novel "Blood Orchid." But unlike the accidental visual montages that passive viewers create each day, Bowden's gallery of frozen frames depicting American life make terrible sense when added together.

Like all novels that are bound for wide critical acclaim, "Blood Orchid" is difficult to categorize. It is a road novel, but it willingly treads common ground in a way that Kerouac the coy non-conformist never did in "On the Road."

It is also a meticulously sourced American history text, but violent in the extreme in other words, true to the way things happened in this hemisphere since Columbus' arrival. (Bowden is acutely aware that "American" history is not limited by the legal boundaries of the United States.)

"Blood Orchid" is also reads like a prose poem. William Carlos Williams, a poet most famous for his short works, devoted many years to creating a long poem titled "Paterson" a prose work which liberally appropriates words from newspapers, conversations and legal documents of the New Jersey town where he lived and for which the poem is titled.

With "Blood Orchid," Bowden, similar to Williams, uses real-life quotations to create a living portrait of his home. Like a good poet, Bowden delivers his portrait to all the reader's senses especially the smells. Sterno, red wine, pheromones (human and otherwise), cocaine, leaded gasoline and buffalo blood, to name a few.

The density and precision of his images guarantees that, despite his wide-ranging narrative (from the Wounded Knee to the torture chambers of Argentina) Bowden's commentary is never superficial.

Great literature delves into universal themes. With his blood orchids flowers which bloom when humans lash out violently Bowden has found a powerful metaphor for a civilization that seems bent on self destruction. These hypnotic flowers bloom in public throughout the book, but they are also intensely personal. Bowden's characters and readers alike are left to define and claim their own unique share of humanity's slow suicide.

But for all its stark imagery, "Blood Orchid" is ultimately bound together by a bright thread of optimism. Bowden's tally of sins perpetrated in the name of U.S.-style "democracy" (at one point the Pentagon is sacked by all who have been done wrong by it) serves less as an epitaph as departure point en route to a better future.

"Blood Orchid" is a major work which tears down the artificial boundaries that governments set up and demonstrates how the lives of all living things affect each other. The book should be of special interest to those in the American west and are not afraid to face the true brutality of their world as they seek a meaningful understanding of it.

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