Among the Dark Horses with David Bowman’s “Big Bang”

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IN THE 2006 PREFACE to his nonfiction opus about the growth and skewed conception of modern Los Angeles, Mike Davis writes of what he was attempting with the book:

City of Quartz [1990], to use one of those Parisian terms that I usually try to run over with my pick-up truck, is the biography of a conjoncture: one of those moments, ripe with paradox and non-linearity, when previously separate currents of history suddenly converge with profoundly unpredictable results.

Davis’s book is an achievement on par with, if a little more casual and free-associative than, Robert Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York [1974] — indispensable in fathoming what makes a particular city the city it is, one whose present we can only apprehend by excavating its recent or not-so-recent past. The late David Bowman’s Big Bang, in its own teeming way, appears meant to be taken as just such a book. It is big. It sprawls — in page count, subject matter, and proliferation of characters. Passing through the pages of this rare performance is an honor-roll of ’50s and ’60s hip: Jimi “Buster” Hendrix, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr (post-prison), Lucille Ball, Howard Hughes, Frank O’Hara, J. D. Salinger, Montgomery Clift, Bruce Lee, Elvis, and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (“Jackie,” or “Jacks,” as Bowman refers to her). The reader is also treated to an assortment of malcontents and misanthropes (besides Burroughs, as ever transcending category), including Jane Spock (wife of Dr. Benjamin), Joseph McCarthy, Roy Cohn, Richard and Pat Nixon, Alger Hiss, William F. Buckley Jr., and Robert S. McNamara. Straddling the line between hip and monster of discontent are Howard Hunt, the one-time novelist and spy whose idea of fun was the Watergate burglary, and Ngô Đình Diệm, future prime minister of the state of Vietnam. Few familiar with the history of the Vietnam War would take the notoriously corrupt Diệm as a figure of complex sympathy — yet Bowman emphatically does. This array of stars revolves around John F. Kennedy, portrayed by Bowman as an avatar of reflexive privilege. Since Bowman tends not to keep in strict adherence with historical chronology, Kennedy somehow makes his first appearance in Big Bang as both a Senator toward the end of his more carefree days in government (“You’re […] near forty years old,” Bowman has the Kennedy patriarch remark, “If you don’t get married, voters will assume that you’re queer.”) and as the subject of the notorious Zapruder film, his presidential mind effusing across Jackie’s Mamie Pink Chanel suit. (If you’re looking for an off-the-cuff discursion on the origins of the color “Mamie Pink,” this is the book for you.) Complementing this nakedly morbid fetishizing of Kennedy’s departure are obsessions related to the boomer generation: the invention of birth control, the advent of television and rock ’n’ roll, and various incarnations of a woman’s dissatisfaction with the male-dominated status quo. Darkly comic set pieces punctuate Bowman’s encyclopedia of cool: Lucille Ball interrogated by the FBI, in a sequence that feels like a knowing citation of David Foster Wallace’s short story “My Appearance”; an absurdly protracted make-out sequence between Montgomery Clift and Adele Mailer, mid-’50s wife of Norman (“Kissing this man had the euphoric tendencies of reefer”); and a screwball sequence where Howard Hughes attempts to conduct three simultaneous dates within the sprawling corridors of a hotel (a sequence that reads almost as an allegory for Bowman’s novel). Fractured, disjunctive, this “nonfiction novel” (as the author apparently dubbed it) does not proceed linearly but recursively, circling back to pet themes and incidents in obsessive fashion. Reading only the chapter titles, you would be led to believe that Big Bang is a very carefully ordered book, proceeding year by year through the 1950s up until the fateful 1963; however, the actual substance of any given chapter tends to push against its chronological contours. Locations named at the start of a chapter are likely to appear only briefly, as events advance by a month or two, then fall back by six months, or 15 years. “Mayo Clinic, Minnesota, 1951,” as the third chapter is titled, briefly settles on Dr. Spock and his discontented wife Jane (who is Bowman’s true focus), as the famous doctor works his daily rounds and Jane seethes at home, the uncredited co-author of her husband’s best seller The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. From there, we spiral off to accompany William Burroughs on a trip to Ecuador, then join his wife, Joan Vollmer, as she entertains Ginsberg and Carr in Mexico. Soon we are back with the Spocks, but now in Manhattan during an earlier period of their marriage. Meanwhile, Howard Hunt, also in Mexico, imperialistically schemes over Cuba as he rushes his next paperback thriller into print. Throughout the novel, Bowman-as-narrator intercedes in what might be called “awkward on purpose” fashion — for example, noting toward the end of the third chapter that Hunt’s thrillers didn’t sell nearly as many copies as Dr. Spock’s most successful book, which outsold the Holy Bible, if only briefly. So where, pray tell, does the conjoncture of Bowman’s magnum opus lead? Right from the start, there’s something not quite right about Big Bang, something decidedly askew — and that, perhaps, is exactly as it was meant to be. No MFA workshop would ever approve this novel; it has the genuine veneer of outsider art. In his late youth, Bowman was struck by a truck while out walking along a road in Montauk; having not yet completed his first novel, Let the Dog Drive (1992), the author awoke from a month in a coma with a major case of amnesia and a finale still to write. As Jonathan Lethem comments in his tightrope walk of an introduction to Big Bang, that ending, once completed, was colored by “scenes of torture and revenge that plunge the book into a darkness for which the earlier two-thirds […] scantly [prepare] a reader to endure.” Big Bang, written over the course of at least a decade, is not a novel imbalanced by such darkness. It sports a fizziness and near-manic unpredictability, driven by a flurry of brief sections of the sort now in vogue with contemporary fiction (thank you, Twitter!). Rarely does a scene last for more than three or four pages; most run only a page or so, which ought to keep the reader buzzing along. Hesitation only arises when said reader starts asking why this history is being told in such a kaleidoscopic style, and when and how it will all come together. Ultimately, it is almost as if Bowman’s intent were to parody by exaggeration the penchant of so many contemporary novels to feature a “celebrity” walk-on: nearly every named character in Big Bang is famous, or historically significant, or both. From the perch of our own teeming, TV-saturated present, it can be hard to parse the difference. David Bowman was a writer who enjoyed an early flush of praise — glowing notices in The New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker, as well as shortlisting as one of Granta’s “best American novelists under forty.” He fell into literary league with a young Jonathan Lethem, then a budding sci-fi author longing to transition to “serious” fiction. In his contemporary, Bowman found a mind to inspire and one whom he could lend the occasional crucial assist; by Lethem’s accounting, Bowman helped title As She Climbed Across the Table (1997) and rustled up a blurb from the one and only Jim Harrison, which probably went a long way toward validating the novel among the literati. Ensconced on the Lower East Side while Lethem lived (then, as he does, again, now) on the West Coast, Bowman would send audiotapes of his musings from a beach in Montauk, using his fellow author as a sounding board of sorts. Call it “ellipsis.” (Lethem does, to darkly comical effect, in his novel Chronic City [2009].) As detailed in the introduction to Big Bang, Lethem also received, over the years, “charmingly nutty handwritten letters […] scissor-and-glue-pot collages, usually incorporating elements from the New York tabloids — Page Six squibs […] combined with Bowman’s own cartoonish Sharpie scribbles, or his personal erotic photography.” One such collage, the “Dancing DeLillos Charm,” featured a line of Rockette torsos with Don DeLillo’s head superimposed atop every one. The Bowman tapes, “hypnotic, outlandish, and boring at once,” used to arrive with such frequency that they filled the “floor space in the passenger side of [Lethem’s] Toyota Corolla,” much to his then-girlfriend’s chagrin. Yet via their far-flung correspondence, Lethem and Bowman arrived at a shared mission for their fiction: to champion “not ‘heart,’ exactly, but some eccentric character or motif, a tic or inside joke, almost, one that made the book personal to the author, and in turn to the reader who loved it.” In time, the two authors grew apart. Or, rather, closer together — uncomfortably so — upon Lethem’s return to Brooklyn, such that he could no longer deny his friend’s “exposure,” in his own words, as “a person whose stark limitations, whose damage, were the equal of his charisma and brilliance.” Under that shadow, the perceived weight of a media apparatus whose blessing one author seemingly enjoyed while the other labored in obscurity, Big Bang was born. Or, at least, conceived, wanting only for a publisher. The particular status that Bowman now, well, not enjoys, but possesses — or has been fully and completely possessed by — is potentially a sympathetic sort in our day and age when, in Lethem’s words, “canons have fragmented and been assaulted, and working authors seem compromised by social-media overfamiliarity and three-and-a-half-star verdicts.” At least it’s pretty to think so, to echo the last line of a debut novel that characters in Big Bang mention on multiple occasions, seeming to give voice to their author’s own lit-crit outlook. Almost as if the big-name characters featured in Bowman’s pages say more about him than about themselves; as if these assorted figures are, in some way, magnets, or placeholders, for emotion too big to be contained at the source. In Big Bang, Jack and Jacks’s pillow talk revolves around the arbitrary nature of the shapes of the states that make up the USA, talk that registers as both sweet and vaguely alien. Without dialogue tags, it becomes unclear who is speaking, which, undoubtedly, is part of the point:

“What would you say has the most right angles? Utah?”

“No. Wyoming.”

“What’s that all about? Utah should be a perfect square.”

“A circle! Why is no state a circle? Or an oval?”’

“Men don’t think in circles. They think in squares. Or complications.”

“Women think in circles. If a woman ran America from the jump, Utah would be a perfect bull’s eye. Or shaped like a heart.”

Jack and Jacks, Jacks and Jack: Bowman and Bowman and Bowman. We live in a weirdly inverted age — insides out, outsides in — and so arrives a book with something like the physical and historical heft of a City of Quartz, or The Power Broker, or a documentary series like The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, unspooling for the reader like an audiotape recorded alone on a beach at night. Within the pages we will find a messy vulnerable portrait of the author, a cavalcade of familiar names, generally accurate historical oddities and fascinations, and generous servings of weirdness. The portrait in pathos of Bowman that emerges is not revealed down the road by a biographer, but trumpeted up-front by way of introduction. Leo Tolstoy takes the better part of a thousand pages to step out from behind the Oz-like screen of his pageant of war and ballroom intrigue, and even then he does so circumspectly. Today, the late David Bowman is brought to view before Big Bang has even begun. Who then is to say that our modern moment didn’t begin with Jackie Kennedy in an open-topped limo turning in apprehension toward her husband and lifting a hand as if to help? In the blink of an eye her husband’s damage would be exposed beyond all measure. A moment that will be remembered as long as there are people to remember it, even as she spent the rest of her life doing her best to forget.

¤

J. T. Price has recently completed a novel manuscript, and is the managing editor of Epiphany a Literary Journal. Find him on Twitter (he, too, dislikes it) or www.jt-price.com.