Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family.

By Charles Bowden.
Simon and Schuster. 496 pp. $27.

This book is the archeology of a nightmare. There will be music and laughter; salsa will flavor the gunfire. Some will say none of this ever happened.

On January 20, 1995, Bruno Jordan is gunned down in a parking lot in El Paso, Texas, in what appears to be a botched carjacking. His brother Phil, a DEA agent, is powerless to solve the crime. Miguel Angel Flores, a 13-year-old who cannot drive, is convicted. A journalist–Charles Bowden–sees a small report of the killing and is momentarily intrigued. He decides to call Phil and ask why he thinks his brother was shot, thinking it might make a good magazine story.

Seven years and many stories later, Bowden publishes Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family, an encyclopedic examination of America and Mexico’s shared multibillion-dollar drug industry. The death of Bruno and his devastated family’s attempts to deal with the murder form the focal point of this complex story, as Bowden endeavors to both untangle an intricate web of deceit and corruption and understand the motive behind this seemingly meaningless murder. With his restless prose style and juxtaposing perspectives, Bowden moves between the worlds of El Paso and Ju´rez, Mexico, linking presidents, informants, DEA agents, judges, journalists, mayors, victims and criminals in a compelling narrative that asks where the war on drugs has led us.

For those unfamiliar with Bowden’s work, he is best described as a chronicler of the “New West”; a fallen landscape that stands in sharp relief against the shadow cast by the mythic Old West. Bowden documents the “sickness that seeps through the American soul”–hot and violent nights, formless dreams, despair and suicide. One of his central themes is cannibalism–the desperate hunger that drives people to do evil unto each other and their environment, creating “a life without future.” In Blood Orchid the carnivorous, delicate hammer orchid becomes a metaphor for the hypocrisy that Bowden observes in the brutal, concealed history of America. Sex-offenders, winos, addicts and a prisoner who endlessly paints pictures of former Presidents collide in the dysfunctional world of Blues for Cannibals–an extended meditation on what it means to live in a world driven by consumption. Yet moments of beauty pierce Bowden’s dark narratives; the tenderness and understanding he directs towards his discredited subjects combine to affirm the redemptive power of language.

In Down by the River the hallucinatory, poetic intensity that defined his other works is less apparent. It has been replaced by a new clarity, one that stems from Bowden’s obsessive desire to understand–to understand this secret, other world that runs in tandem with our own, and to mourn the devastating consequences that occur when the two collide.