Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing

By Charles Bowden. Houghton Mifflin, $24.

In this final installment of his self-described “accidental trilogy,” following Blood Orchid and Blues for Cannibals, nonfiction author Charles Bowden offers a libidinous and maddeningly inconsistent elegy for the environment. The situation, he argues, is beyond comprehension: “We can’t wrap our minds around the vast dying now taking place,” he writes. That doesn’t stop him from trying to chart the destruction and hint at how dwindling fuel, global warming and terrorism will affect the future.

He’s at his best when describing phenomena beyond his ken: sites of trauma (postbombing Bali, post-Katrina New Orleans) and how Moby Dick might teach us something about the damage caused by modern whalers. Bowden on Bowden, however, slips into self-aggrandizing clichés ripped from a dime novel: He travels to an unnamed city (strongly resembling Ciudad Juarez) to cover human disappearances, but devotes the narrative to dodging menacing gangsters and a chorus line of femme fatales. The chapters “Room” and “Lullaby” devolve into parodies of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, where Bowden abandons hope and despair for a “yes,” an acceptance of the inevitability of degradation for all things animal, vegetable and mineral.

But read his opening section, “Red,” where Bowden struggles with how best to mourn the blighted wilds of the American southwest. Read and remember his chapter “Serpent,” where he studies rattlesnakes and realizes that he treasures nature for its inscrutability and otherness. It is easy to long for the book this could have been, something more focused and less sentimental. But Bowden loves ragged borders; his portrait of decomposing order is macho and maudlin, untidy and true.

Parul Sehgal, Time Out New York / Issue 709 : Apr 30–May 6, 2009 

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