All books have family trees, and you don’t need a DNA swab to start drawing one for David Bowman’s posthumously published novel, “Big Bang,” which has at least two screamingly obvious progenitors: Don DeLillo’s “Libra” and “Underworld.” Like those novels, Bowman’s is firmly planted in midcentury America, preoccupied with history’s tectonic plates and stuffed with real-life characters.
Bowman nods very directly to this influence, introducing DeLillo as a minor character when the future author was a young copywriter at an advertising firm. We later see DeLillo at a performance by the comedian Lenny Bruce, who makes searing, unforgettable appearances in “Underworld.”
Bowman’s novel begins with the Kennedy assassination. Ann-Margret and Elvis end up watching the murder’s aftermath on the news with some of the King’s retinue. In the ensuing chapter, we’re in Mexico City in 1950, with the C.I.A. operative Howard Hunt, the novelist William Burroughs and the “steroid man” Carl Djerassi, one of the scientists who helped create the birth-control pill.
As Bowman himself might write, in his playful, interjection-dotted way: Let’s back up.
Bowman was an abundantly talented writer (maybe too abundantly; hang on) with an abundance of bad luck. He suffered a near-fatal accident in 1989, hit by a truck while walking in Montauk, on Long Island. In 2012, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage at 54. In the intervening years, he published three books, including two novels. His first, “Let the Dog Drive” (1992), a manic riff on road trips and detective novels, garnered attention for its mixture of absurdist humor and grim violence. In The Times, Tim Sandlin said it was written with “unstructured, unrepentant energy.”
Bowman certainly put a lot of energy into casting “Big Bang,” which you may find overpopulated even if you like crowds. The novel’s central nervous system is formed around American politics — it ends as well as begins with Kennedy’s death, and spends considerable time on the Vietnam War, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Watergate. But J.F.K., Jacqueline Kennedy, Aristotle Onassis, Richard Nixon and Ngo Dinh Diem are joined in this story by — among others — Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Lee, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Dr. Benjamin Spock and his wife, Jane, George Plimpton, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe, the literary critic Leslie Fiedler, J. D. Salinger, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning, Elizabeth Taylor, Raymond Chandler, Sylvia Plath, Jack Kerouac, Frank Sinatra and Maria Callas.
The events recounted in “Big Bang” include, but are far from limited to: Mailer stabbing his wife, Burroughs shooting his wife, Rosemary Kennedy’s lobotomy, Khrushchev at Disneyland, the director John Huston making “The Misfits,” Fidel Castro’s appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Nixon playing the piano on “The Jack Paar Show,” the release of the Ford Edsel, Montgomery Clift nearly dying in a car wreck after leaving a dinner party in the Hollywood Hills and, for about the blink of an eye, a young George W. Bush in the car with his mother, Barbara, after she has suffered a miscarriage.
If this review is beginning to seem encyclopedic in nature, it is simply mirroring the book. “Big Bang” resembles a baby boomer clearing house. Set between 1950 and 1963, there are moments when it seems intended to be a real-time account of the entire period.
This creates a paradoxical sensation in the reading experience. Individual pages and the brief scenes zoom by; but somewhere around halfway through, this nearly 600-page book begins to feel endless. Bowman gets approximately 250 plates spinning in the air, and they mostly just keep spinning.
We’re shown a metric ton or two in this book, but almost all of it passes by as if on a screen. There is a consistently straightforward description of things, as in this example: “Ruth moves in with Pollock. They go to Long Island highbrow art parties and all the women cluster around Pollock. Ruth is ignored. She is a few extra pounds heavy. She has dark ratty hair.”
Scenes are frequently begun with terse lines telling us where we are in the action. “Seattle, Washington. Buster Hendrix was now in sixth grade.” “Los Angeles, California, New Year’s Eve.” “A jump cut to the interior of a fancy townhouse.”
But we never really jump to the interior of a person, very rarely getting the soul inside the boldface name.
During this vast assembly, there are plenty of examples of Bowman’s talent. As in his previous works, he’s funny. “Dogs were not considered sentient in 1952,” he writes, by way of explaining that pets were believed to have no souls. “In the 1950s, many were glad of this. It meant the family dog would not go to hell. Americans were innocent about dogs back then. Dogs themselves were innocent. Most dogs.” And he knows his country well. In a speech about movies, Howard Hughes says: “You have to understand about westerns. People who go to them don’t care whether they’re good or bad. It’s like going to a baseball game. The difference between a good and bad western is infinitesimal. People go to a western for American comfort.”
This novel, like Bowman’s other work but even more strenuously, tries to capture what Philip Roth famously called the “indigenous American berserk.” (It’s hardly Bowman’s fault that the book is appearing at a time when berserk sounds relatively placid.) The title “Big Bang,” in addition to referencing the Baby Boom (“this decade’s relentless fecundity”), might also nod to the Kennedy assassination, and to the midcentury release of cultural energies that created what we now know as the postmodern American cosmos.
If Bowman was stuck in the America he was born into — a country bound by “the unifying omnipotence of television,” baseball on the radio, the conflict in Vietnam and the battle (real and imagined) against commies at home — “Big Bang” at least represents a welcome interest in our history past the current news cycle.
No review of it is complete without mentioning its terrific introduction by Jonathan Lethem, a friend of Bowman’s. In fact, DeLillo’s most delightful appearance in the book comes when Lethem recalls receiving a “writing charm” from Bowman in the mail: an image of the Rockettes, with DeLillo’s head pasted atop each dancer’s body.
In his warm and vivid mini-biography, Lethem gets across how brilliant, charismatic and maddening Bowman could be. Those aren’t bad adjectives for his books either. He was a writer with a tankful of high-octane gas and a less than ideal feel for the brakes. In all of his novels, there’s vitality, humor and imagination that deserve to be remembered.