When I first attended grad school in the early 2000s, I was an outlier, but not in a good way. Even though I was 30 and had been accepted into the University of Idaho’s MFA in creative nonfiction, I had never taken a creative writing class. I was self-taught, and it showed. That first semester at Idaho was the first time I heard words like show and tell or the situation and the story (or later the second story).
So when I walked into Mary Clearman Blew’s creative nonfiction class that first semester, I was terrified. And though I had read many books up to that point, I was so raw that I’m not sure I could have articulated exactly what an essay was. And I would have stumbled over the difference between the personal and the academic, and, god, I couldn’t have spoken to the lyric or braided essay at all.
All of that is to say that sometime during that first overwhelming semester, we were assigned Charles Bowden’s essay, “Torch Song.” Since I had moved to Idaho from the Desert Southwest, I knew who Charles Bowden was. He was a former journalist who had quit the newspaper trade to write creative nonfiction that dealt with the desert southwest, immigration, and drug issues. I’d even read many of his books. But I’d never read “Torch Song,” which had recently been published in Harper’s in 1998 and was anthologized in Best American Essays 1999 and the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction.
It’s been nearly fifteen years since I was assigned the essay, so I cannot tell you where I read it—probably in my basement apartment in Moscow, Idaho, leaning back into my futon—or what I said in class about this essay—probably very little since I was so scared in class.
But I am sure I would have made it barely a few paragraphs in the essay before I sat up, sharpened my eyes, focused on the words on the page. I should have known to pay attention from the first sentence because the complete title of Bowden’s is “Torch Song: At the Peripheries of Violence and Desire—a Man Reflects on Sexual Desire and Violence.”
But still I would have skimmed over the opening of the essay, a funeral scene where Bowden mentions that he was the “fluff writer” for the local Tucson newspaper who normally wrote the “soft features” about Santa Claus and quiche recipes and whatnot but today was asked to cover the funeral of a child. And I would have skimmed over the part where Bowden leaves the funeral. He writes, “I was told to go to a motel and see if I could find anything to say.” And I might even have skimmed over the description of the cheap hotel set on the fading edges of Tucson, Arizona, which is where Bowden lives and writes. The motel was “a hotsheet joint, with rooms by the hour or day, and featured water beds (WA WA BEDS, in the language of the sign).”
But I could not have skimmed over the next part where Bowden cold cocks us from behind and drags us into some dark and seedy and violent world of child molestation, child evisceration, rape and rape and rape, deviant sex, murder, and drunken nights of booze and crying and more drinking to chase away the ghosts of the night. Except these ghosts are always on the night streets and we call these ghost our friends, our neighbors, our husbands, our boyfriends, our rapists, our molesters, our murderers, and (for the men reading this essay) ourselves.
Bowden yanks us in without giving us notice because that abrupt awakening mirrors his own shocked entry into a sordid and dirty world. And here is where that world begins: “I looked at a big splotch on the cinderblock wall, and she said, ‘I haven't had time to clean that off yet.’” Bowden continues, “That's where the head had hit, the skull of the toddler just shy of two years, as the man most likely held him by the legs and swung him like a baseball bat.”
And so it begins.
Bowden’s descent, and our voyeuristic ride, to the borderland.
Between sex and violence.
Between consent and rape.
Bowden writes, “For the next three years I live in a world where the desire of people, almost always men, to touch and have their way with others makes them criminals.” This is where “Torch Song” lives, in this world of criminal men.
“Torch Song” details Bowden’s descent into a world where children are raped and women are killed and Bowden, himself, falls into drinking and cheap sex as a way to survive the terror he has been asked to report on. Yet the essay is not about shocking us. It’s instead asking us to reflect upon this world, to decide for ourselves what we think and where we stand. What side of the border are we on?
What makes us (as men), if anything, different from the criminals?
And this is one of many spots where “Torch Song” challenges my own writing. I write about emotionally engaging topics—the death of a mentor, broken hearted love, ideas of wilderness and wildness, sports exploits, living in the woods as a trail builder and the list goes on. But I often shy from those moments in an essay where I look my worst, where I know the reader will shake their heads, disapprovingly. I pull off the gas pedal just before I implicate myself. I settle. I turn the black to gray. I turn the perverted and strange within myself to something closer to the norm.
Bowden refuses. He stands himself before a mirror. He leaves nothing out. Not his descent into drinking. Not the allure of chasing after the rapists and murderers and molesters. Not his boredom with his wife. Not his inappropriate sexual relationships with victims and the mothers of victims. Neither the emotional damage that occurs within him nor the emotional damage that he inflicts upon others. Bowden reveals all so we may begin to question our views on the dark shadows of this world.
“Torch Song” also refuses to prescribe an answer. Bowden refuses to give the reader more than a glimpse at the deviancy of the world. Not just Bowden’s world, but our world. And then he repeatedly forces us to question where the borderland between normalcy and criminality exists or if a border exists. Bowden writes, “We want to believe that the intersection between sex and crime happens only in an alien country, one that does not touch our lives or feelings or lusts of the midnight hours.” We need to question if maybe that intersection also occurs right here in our own world.
Later Bowden writes, “We like to call things that disturb us a jungle, to wall them off from our sense of order and self. But we all inhabit that forest, a dense thicket of desire and dread, both burning bright. We want to categorize: victims or studs, seduced or seducers. And we can hardly look at people who we agree are criminals and admit we feel some of their passions and fantasies within ourselves. My life in those days erased boundaries and paid no attention to whether I was a predator or a victim or a newspaper savior with a byline.”
In the end, I was left walking the town of Moscow, Idaho. It was, let’s say, late night. John’s Alley Bar has let out. All the boys and all the girls are headed home or to wherever we head at this after-midnight hour. And in this drunken haze, stumbling up Main, ready to turn down 1st Street, for home, how can I not think to my own past. Am I stud? Seducer? Criminal? Where do I stand? Where have I stood? What might make me a predator? What makes me a predator? Leering eyes. Tight dancing. Hips upon hips. Kisses in dark corners. Those wandering hands. Where does it lead? Where does it end?
At this hour of the night, nothing is clear. Everything smells of smoke and confusion. Maybe it’s the booze. Maybe it was the beautiful girl in the Expos shirt dancing to the music of the Clumsy Lovers. Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s all of manhood. (Maybe if I was stronger, if I wasn’t so damn afraid, I’d take you further, or farther back into the corner of the bar, but this is not an essay about me, at least that’s what I tell myself; this is an essay about “Torch Song,” but we know that we tell ourselves lies all the time; not us, never us.)
Whatever it is, if it is anything at all, Bowden and his words demand that I reflect, demand that I question myself even if I never arrive at a clear answer or if I am afraid of that clear answer.
One of my graduate school mentors once shared with my class a quote, which I believe was attributed to William Kittredge, “Don’t fuck with chronology unless you have a good reason to.” So I learned, rightly so, to follow chronology. I started at the beginning. And I wrote to the end. And now as a professor, I share this same advice with my students.
Yet Bowden fucks with chronology throughout the entire piece. Only the opening and closing scenes offer a bookend with time, but even these moments are not given concrete markers of time. The rest of the essay meanders or jumps or flows (the reader has no idea how the crime and sex scenes connect) from one deviant episode to another criminal episode. The reader is left dizzy, confused as we try to place ourselves in time, as we try to tether ourselves to something concrete.
Why? I ask my students. Why does Bowden tear apart chronology?
The smart ones realize Bowden teaches us why within the essay when he writes, “Almost twenty years have passed, and I've avoided thinking about it. There are some things that float pretty free of time, chronology, the book of history, and the lies of the experts.” Later, Bowden talks about being in a sort of trance and about how “The days of the week cease to have meaning, as do the weeks of the month and the months of the year.”
This is how life works. The clean moments may have clean narratives. But the darkest have, if we are lucky, a clear beginning, but the rest of the dark journey might be a stumble of alcohol, sex, rape, and murder.
I remember waking as a high school junior, my parents at the base of my bed. My dad calling me from the peacefulness of sleep. Telling me in a steady voice that my mentor had died in the night. Drunk driving. Later there were tears alone by the Delaware River. Later still, there were visions of a Mercury Lynx tumbling down a road (and tumbling and tumbling). Later there were visions of flames. Later, a local medic told me of screams. Of screams. I still hear those screams. Can you hear the screams? Later friends gathered to cry. Later in May, we wander the school halls unsure what to say, unsure where to go. There was a funeral overflowing with hundreds of people. The sky broke into rain. And then some day so much later, the pain no longer led to crying, just a dull ache that sticks around until today.
And that is all Bowden can offer us in terms of chronology. Just the beginning of the pain. The rest is Bowden sinking deeper into a world that offers no morning sun, no Sunday school, no 9-to-5. Only darkness followed by more darkness.
How can his world possess chronology? How can his world move cleanly through time?
This piece is graphic language and grotesque images: “He raped her, pistol-whipped her, pumped two rounds into her, and then left her for dead…. He tells me they should take those guys out and cut their dicks off, and then he staggers down the hall with his hangover to take a piss.… The polite term is child molestation. The father said he had done nothing but fondle his son. The boy had gonorrhea of the mouth. The polite term is child molestation.… She went to visit her own therapist once and he questioned her openness, and she wound up doing golden showers in his office.” Or
A woman is at the door and she has three balls on a string she wishes to insert in my ass, and then she will pull the string at the moment of orgasm.And it goes on and on.
A woman is at the door and she says she has cuffs.
A woman is at the door late at night and we make love, and as she leaves she says she can't see me again because she is getting married in the morning.
Two women are at the door...
And all of this vulgar language reminds me, at times, of a college level short story written by some young man just learning how shock-and-awe works in writing, just learning that other college age men will love a short story for its hard edge, for its rude language, even if that rawness never goes beyond shock value.
If Bowden can make “Torch Song” more graphic, he will. If he can give us a dirtier image of the deviancy of this world, he will. Why? And what separates him from our gratuitously graphic college level writer?
It’s that Bowden knows exactly why he is overly graphic, why he must use this graphic language. Bowden understands that this entire essay will crumble to the dust of ideas without its explicit nature. It must be vulgar. Bowden writes, “We lie about sex crimes because we lie about sex. We lie about sex because we fear what we feel within ourselves and recoil when others act out our feelings.” In “Torch Song,” Bowden refuses to allow the reader to lie about sex or sex crimes. From beginning to ending, Bowden uses graphic language to force the reader to confront sex, to talk about sex, to not be able to lie to ourselves about sex.
Bowden writes: “Afterward, she tells me that when she was a girl her father, who was rich and successful, would sit around with his male friends and they would take turns fucking her in the ass.”
We may hate this language. We may hate these images. But these are the words and the language of the world Bowden spent three years in. Therefore, these are the words and the ideas that he must share with us. The language is always terrible. But it is never gratuitous. These are the words of Bowden’s world. Bowden might say it best: “I have entered a world that is black, sordid, vicious. And actual.”
In workshop, we often wonder how to end a piece. We merely say, “This ending left me unsatisfied.” Or we say, “Close on an image that moves the reader, that leaves us with an idea.” Or we say, “Bookend back to the beginning.” But we probably never tell our students and our peers, “Leave the reader hanging,” or “Provide no answers,” or “Just shrug your shoulders and walk away.” But that’s exactly how Bowden ends this piece. In the first of multiple endings, Bowden writes, “I nurse my beer and say little, pretending to try to understand. But I understand nothing at all.”
Wait, you mean I’ve just read twelve single-spaced pages and all you can tell me is that you don’t understand anything?
But Bowden doesn’t care. He continues, “It ends several times, but at last it finally ends.” But even that is a lie. Bowden veers onward, not down some straight road, but down another dark and circuitous midnight alley. Toward (but not yet at) the essay’s final ending, Bowden writes, “Nothing really helps. That is what I am trying to say. Theories don't help, therapies don't help, knowing doesn't help. The experts say they have therapies that are cutting recidivism, and maybe they do, but I doubt it.”
But, still, even after that almost-ending, Bowden turns to one more crime scene. How to wrap it all up? How to make sense of a senseless world? How to give answers to unanswerable questions? How to give us that ending we long for? The reader wants answers. The reader needs answers as ballast. We need something to orient us. Something to tell us that we (all of the men of this world) are maybe not seducer, maybe not stud, and please let us not be criminal. We can never be criminal. But Bowden refuses to tell us that. He refuses answers.
He merely writes, “And I drink without a word. Nobody wants to hear these things.”
And in the remaining silence, within the lack of answers, I question and ponder; I attempt and I try on ideas. About all the things I never want to think about—consent and rape and sex and violence. It is all I can do.
Sean Prentiss is a co-editor of a forthcoming anthology on the craft of creative nonfiction. This book, The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre, will be published by Michigan State University Press in 2013. His essays, poems, and stories have appeared in Passages North, Sycamore Review, Brevity, ISLE, Ascent, River Styx, Spoon River, Nimrod, and many other journals. He teaches writing at Norwich University in Vermont’s Green Mountains and lives on a small cove that reaches into a small lake. He can be reached at email@example.com.