“The novel you are about to read is true,” writes David Bowman in the foreword to “Big Bang.” “All the people who are mentioned — just as Bob Dylan sang — I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name. Still, this novel is true history.”
It’s a remarkable statement that raises dozens of questions. Bowman’s not around to answer any of them; he died of a brain hemorrhage in 2012, when he was 54. He left behind three published books: two novels, “Let the Dog Drive” and “Bunny Modern,” and “This Must Be the Place,” a biography of the band Talking Heads. He was working on a few projects at the time of his death; “Big Bang” was perhaps the most ambitious one. It’s also his masterpiece — a sprawling, manic miracle of a book from a writer who never achieved the fame he long deserved.
“Big Bang” might not be “true history” as Bowman claims — it’s hard to know the distance between his tongue and cheek when he wrote that — but its cast of characters is drawn from real life. Within the first few pages, the reader is introduced to Norman Mailer, Ann-Margret, Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon. We also meet President Kennedy; the novel is framed as a quasi-history of the years leading up to his assassination.
Bowman follows these and other midcentury historical figures as their lives take turns for the worse, and sometimes intersect with one another. There’s William S. Burroughs, the “Naked Lunch” author, who “looks cadaverously beat” and “has a healthy appetite for bennies and horse.” Burroughs ends up doing time (though not much) in a Mexican jail after he shoots and kills his wife in an alleged accident.
There’s Lucille Ball, testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee in its investigation into communists in Hollywood, worrying her career could be irrevocably damaged. And then there’s Jimi Hendrix, Joseph McCarthy, Howard Hunt, Benjamin Spock and a “blind drunk” Montgomery Clift, all navigating the 1950s and early 1960s with varying degrees of success.
It’s hard to explain the plot of “Big Bang,” because there really isn’t one; rather, there are dozens of plots, which Bowman juggles with an agility that’s breathtaking. The climax of the novel is the Kennedy assassination, and at times it seems as if Bowman is setting up some kind of elaborate conspiracy theory, but he resists any urge he might have had to concoct a bizarre fantasy. (As Bowman’s friend Jonathan Lethem notes in the novel’s introduction, the late author at one point became obsessed with 9/11 conspiracy theories.) The novel ends starkly, where it has to, with a country somehow even more confused than it had been in the decade prior.
There are a hundred reasons why “Big Bang” shouldn’t work. Bowman has every opportunity to get carried away on tangents — early in the book, it’s easy to wonder whether this will end up as a novel-length shaggy-dog story — but he writes with a real focus, never abandoning any of the numerous plot lines that run through the book. His prose is elegant but stubbornly unshowy; he writes as if he were a documentarian, calmly reporting historical events with an assured and authoritative tone.
It’s a technique that allows him to recount (probably) imaginary events like Saul Bellow offering to lend Arthur Miller his pornographic magazines when the two are on a trip to Nevada. It sounds (and is) absurd, but Bowman consistently maintains his straight face and never winks to the reader or seems satisfied with his own cleverness.
Perhaps most important, Bowman brings his characters to life the way only a novelist with real imagination can. We read about Patricia Nixon, watching her husband, Richard, as he delivers his famous “Checkers speech”; she’s convinced that the spines of the prop books behind her husband all read “Nixon is a crook.” We encounter Don DeLillo, working as an advertising copywriter, staring at himself in the mirror and declaring, “I am an extremely handsome young man.” Bowman has a gift for drawing out the oddball in the celebrities he writes about, and the effect is sometimes heartbreaking and sometimes hilarious.
“Big Bang” is a stunningly accomplished novel, both deeply American and deeply weird. So is it, as Bowman claimed, “true history?” Lethem, for his part, urges caution: “Indeed, though Bowman’s book is full of facts, none of them is to be considered strictly reliable.” And of course it doesn’t matter; this is, after all, a work of fiction, and a vastly entertaining one at that.
Perhaps Bowman gave his readers the biggest clue in the first of the novel’s two epigraphs: “Tell it slant,” the famous words of Emily Dickinson. It’s telling that Bowman leaves off the beginning of the line: “Tell all the truth.” Maybe Bowman grew to believe his own fiction; maybe he predicted the post-truth era we now live in. Or maybe he was just heeding the last lines of Dickinson’s poem: “The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind.”
Schaub is a writer in Texas.
Little, Brown and Company: 624 pp., $32