Border Readings

Recently my friend and editor Tim Gallagher returned from a harrowing trip to the Sierra Madre in search of traces of the Imperial Woodpecker, Mexico’s Ivorybill, which is probably extinct. He was lucky to get out alive, and I hope he writes up his adventures soon.

I thought to give him a Borderland reading list, mostly by two writers I know. (People always think of Cormac McCarhy but except for No Country for Old Men he is historical, and the Border has changed in MY thirty years near it).

I used to see quite a bit of Chuck Bowden (the only first- rate nature AND crime writer I have ever known, or heard of) when I spent more time in Arizona, and have had a conversation or two with Joe Brown, who knew some of the same legendary old Magdalena cowboys I did, all long gone. I thought at first just to give their names, but Bowden in particular is prolific, both his “nature” and “crime” (?) books. After I wrote it I realized that given events on the Border it might interest blog readers too. Rather than exhaust myself editing I will just add this intro and copy it over, and hope it is comprehensible.

There are a lot more things you might read on the area– try Jonathan and Roseann Hanson on natural history for instance– but here is a beginning, books showing the beauty of the place, but also all the contemporary dangers and fears:

Charles Bowden (Chuck):


Old but one of Chuck’s best “nature” essay collections. The prose on mountain lions alone is indispensable and only he could have written it.

Murder City:

Juarez . Newest book; depressing, terrifying, and just a bit more than two hours away from me. Juarez now has the world’s highest murder rate of any city, and it will not stay “over there.”

Blues for Cannibals:

Perhaps my favorite of his “literary” books. Sometimes harsh.

The Secret Forest:

Something different: a book about a unique dry forest ecosystem in Mexico, with photos. Not like most of the others!

Down by the River:

His best drug book? Dark and murky but fascinating.

Blues for Cannibals contains all the themes so may be the one to start with– but INTENSE. He has a “reader” of some sort coming out in the fall– intro (?) by Jim Harrison.

JPS (Joseph Paul Summers, “Joe”) Brown, still in the saddle at 87:

Forests of the Night:

Classic, OP I think but easy to find– an old peasant hunts a cattle country jaguar. This is the one he once inscribed to me: “I love your taste in books”.

Wolves at our Door:

New, from of all places the (rather PC) UNM Press– same characters from the one above about 30 years later, including Jim Kane, the cowboy who made him his evanescent movie $$. Terror on the border– Brown believes the unique hybrid border culture he belongs to and loves is under siege from everything from modern commercial culture and Middle eastern terrorists to Minutemen, “coyotes”, and above all narcotrafficantes, all clueless and venal, often consciously or unconsciously linked. I believe him. Scary book.

The World in Pancho’s Eye:

Childhood memoir.

And for “fun”-??– God’s Middle Finger by Richard Grant:

A book by a terminally innocent Brit journalist who, if I remember right, both writers above warned not to go to the Sierra Madre (I know Joe did) but who did anyway, and met and partied with people I would shoot on sight. He almost didn’t make it out. It is also an unfortunate but typical lesson in modern book making. Cover copy tells how he was terrified by narcos ”blasting parakeets”. Well, sort of. Someone was skimming: the phrase is colloquial for chasing cocaine with shots of beer.

Also, though it has more stars and reviews on Amazon than the ones above it is not better; it is EASIER.

Read, shiver, weep. Much as I can love El Cormac, he doesn’t own the Border.

4 thoughts on “Border Readings”

  1. It is funny you mention Murder City as Bowden was on CBC radio a couple of days ago talking about it. Depressing dowesn't describe it. Dante's Hell comes closer.

    I tried to find a link to the interview on cbc but no luck.


  2. I forgot to mention I read God’s Middle Finger by Richard Grant a few months back. Also depressing and terrifying. Some of the behaviors meshed with what I read in Bozo Sapiens, a good book on human errors.


  3. Steve,

    After your first recommendation for "Wolves at Our Door" I got it and then sent it to my Dad, who spent a couple of decades in law enforcement on the border, including some very remote sections. He said that the characters rang exactly true to him.


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