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Blue Desert by Charles Bowden (University of Arizona : $16.95; 175 pp.)

November 16, 1986|David Graber | Graber is a research biologist with the National Park Service. and

Most of the people in Arizona live in Phoenix or Tucson, places that have come to look pretty much like everywhere else in homogenized America. But the Sonoran Desert where those cities are so artificially cultured is not everywhere else, not yet anyhow.

Fact is not the same as essence, or even truth. Charles Bowden has written a series of vignettes about life in that Arizona desert which feels true the way something dark and austere feels true.

Bowden was a reporter for the Tucson Citizen. His dispatches conceal passion and grace within simple, flat, declarative sentences. His characters speak for themselves in quotation marks. Bowden doesn't make inferences, at least not overtly. "Blue Desert" is snapshots of strikers and company men, wetbacks, child molesters, Mexicans, Indians, biologists and the fast-disappearing creatures they study. Bowden has created a character for himself, as well, an ironic, tough-minded, laconic sort of guy who is attracted to the Sun Belt's social maelstrom and its stunning talent for transforming beauty into squalor.

I do not believe this character Bowden has created. The man has worked as a researcher for the University of Arizona; he has been in the midst of the politics of growth and water rights and endangered species; he wears Patagonia jackets and long hair; the guy's a birdwatcher , for crying out loud. But this other Charles Bowden does not tell you his concerns; only circumspectly does he reveal feelings. So you have this eerie feeling of being present in the Arizona desert, Bowden pointing the way like some Indian medicine man.

The characters who people Bowden's world are not simple. The man from Phelps Dodge battling the unions gets drunk and surly but surprises Bowden by taking him to the union bar where he is greeted warmly, soldiers from different sides taking the night off while the town and the way of life they are fighting over slowly fades into oblivion. Papago Indians have been offered a get-rich deal from the real estate developer; they send a delegation to their Aguas Calientes kin in Palm Springs who live in fabled wealth.

But the truth of real estate deals is not so pleasant or so prosperous. The Papagos grapple uncertainly with strategies for survival in a world becoming more determinedly alien every day. Frank Escalante is a Mexican whose family has lived on Tucson's eastside for 100 years. Escalante has ties to the land and to his family's history that white-man Bowden can only admire from afar. But growth and economics are forcing out Escalante, and there is nothing he can do about it. The smoke curls from his lips as he announces, "I can't live here anymore." But first he must find his brother's grave.

Bowden visits a cave where 25,000 Mexican free-tailed bats live. The guano and bugs and the stench are pretty awful. The flight of 25,000 bats for their evening's hunting is pretty stupendous. Twenty-five years ago, there were 50 million bats in that colony, and they devoured 80,000 pounds of insects a night. Pesticides in their insect prey got the bats, first the stuff we sprayed, and now the stuff the Mexicans spray across the border. Bowden writes of pronghorn antelope, desert tortoises and Yaqui topminnows, all anachronisms in today's Southwest. Oh, they have their feisty friends. Bowden, after all, writes about them. But their forces are in retreat.

Bowden peppers his stories with murdered corpses, voluptuous cocktail waitresses and rape victims. He closes by recounting a hike through the desert following the Trail of Wetbacks--what a name!--across the border. It is, like most of "Blue Desert," painfully engaging.

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