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A Review of Mark Bowden’s “Road Work”

The New York Times Book Review, November 7, 2004

book cover Road Work by Mark Bowden‘Black Hawk Down,” the harrowing, minute-by-minute reconstruction of the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, in which 18 American soldiers died, established Mark Bowden’s reputation as a master of action-packed narrative nonfiction. Originally serialized in 29 parts in The Philadelphia Inquirer, it became an international best seller and a hit movie (reputedly one of Saddam Hussein’s favorites), produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Ridley Scott. In the five years since ”Black Hawk Down,” Bowden has written three books, including ”Killing Pablo,” on the rise and fall of the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, and published several articles for The Atlantic Monthly, where he is now a national correspondent, on topics ranging from the Abu Ghraib photographs to the ”dark art of interrogation” — cementing his reputation as something like the thinking man’s Tom Clancy.

With ”Road Work: Among Tyrants, Heroes, Rogues, and Beasts,” a selection of Bowden’s journalism from the last 25 years, it becomes clear that the above characterization is incomplete, if not entirely wrong. Bowden is not simply a journalist of action; he has spent most of his career writing about the pedestrian, the everyday. He excels at sharply drawn, painstakingly reported stories about losers, oddballs and con men. Along with the Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ben Cramer, a fellow Inquirer alum, Bowden has spent the bulk of his career — six years at The Baltimore News-American and more than 20 at The Inquirer — as a member of the small club of workaday reporters who bend the newspaper form nearly to the breaking point, fashioning prose that reads like good fiction, with the bonus that his stories are true.

In 2002, Bowden published a book, ”Finders Keepers,” about Joey Coyle, a pathetic, drug-addled South Philadelphia dockworker who finds $1.2 million that has fallen off an armored truck; it’s a small jewel, the story of a man whose rare stroke of good fortune nearly destroys his life. ”Trouble was immune to Joey’s charm; it sought him out and when it stayed away he went looking for it,” Bowden wrote. In a similar vein, one of the best pieces in ”Road Work” is ”Cops on the Take,” a novella-length account from 1984 of a pimp who is sick of being shaken down for bribes and helps the F.B.I. put away a bunch of corrupt Philadelphia cops. Impeccably reported and simply written, it’s the kind of article that usually doesn’t draw much attention. This is fine with Bowden, as he explains in the introduction to ”Road Work”: ”I was perfectly happy working on stories that had nothing to do with breaking news, that interested no one else and that ran deep inside the paper.” The more inconspicuous the subject, the more literary freedom he had.

Bowden credits the new journalism as his inspiration, but his writing bears little resemblance to the overheated prose of Tom Wolfe or Hunter S. Thompson. Rather, Bowden works in a subtradition of the new journalism, one exemplified by Gay Talese’s indefatigably researched portraits of the everyday. Whether Bowden is rendering the pulse-quickening narrative of ”Black Hawk Down” or the quiet tragedy of ”Fight to the Finish,” a story about the suicide of a successful physician afflicted by untreatable depression, he burrows deep down into his character’s psychological and physical reality.

In so doing, Bowden is part of a generation of writers that has exercised the aesthetic freedom the new journalism won for nonfiction in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, using this license to refine reporting techniques, rather than to experiment with language. Unlike most of the new journalists, Bowden never totally abandoned newspapers. Indeed, he became notorious at The Inquirer for devoting months to monstrously long features, the most famous a four-part series on the endangered black rhinoceros, which required him to spend several months in Africa. (One part is reprinted in ”Road Work.”)

Bowden’s work is actually closer in spirit to that of an earlier generation of journalists, represented by late-19th-century writers like Lincoln Steffens and Stephen Crane. Best remembered today for his Civil War novel, ”The Red Badge of Courage,” Crane made his living as a reporter. His favorite journalistic form was the closely observed sketch of city life, of the sort he published in The New York Press. Crane approached reality in much the way Bowden now does, writing unsentimental, artful portraits that captured the minidramas of their characters’ lives (a day in the life of a tramp, a disabled horse-drawn van stranded on a crowded city street) with photographic intensity. (And both reconstructed events, neither Crane nor Bowden coming near a battleground until after their war books were published.)

Bowden rarely appears in his work, preferring a fly-on-the-wall perspective. But when he does show up in a piece, it is in a way that adds to the story without shining a spotlight on himself. In ”Battling ‘the Baddies’ in Fantasyland,” he accompanies 14 terminally ill children from St. Christopher’s Hospital in Philadelphia on a trip to Disney World. What in another reporter’s hands might be treacle becomes in Bowden’s telling a tender vignette.

The trip happens to fall on his son Aaron’s birthday, so Bowden brings him along. The story’s power comes from the reader’s doubly mediated perspective: we watch Bowden observe the sick children and their parents through the lens of his relationship to his own son. ”Here was one child with every prospect of a long life before him, and another, a boy just as bright and lovely, just as sweetly nurtured, just as open and simple and yet already so full of that mystery self, whose very childhood was being strangled from within. . . . I felt frightened. I wanted to scoop Aaron up, remove him from the threat I could feel cold in the room.” Like Crane before him, Bowden is that rare reporter whose writing works as well on a small canvas as it does on the big screen