‘Big Bang’ by David Bowman: Unreliable narrator spins stories that keep you wondering

The question at the heart of David Bowman’s remarkable, posthumous “nonfiction novel” “Big Bang” isn’t the usual “where were you when you heard President Kennedy had been shot?”

Almost nothing in this book (Little, Brown and Company; 624 pp. ★★★1/2 out of four), out Jan. 15, is the usual anything. Instead, he retells the 13 years (1950-1963) leading to that tragic, history-altering day in Dallas by exploring where everyone else was, through entangled, fact-driven, fiction-assisted story lines of the day’s most headline-making politicians, policymakers, corporate heads, celebrities, authors, artists, actors and jetsetters.

Bowman’s Who’s Who shines prismatic light on the lives of such generational icons as Jack and Jackie Kennedy, J.D. Salinger, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Marilyn Monroe, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Jimi Hendrix, Richard Nixon, Elvis Presley, Norman Mailer, and dozens of other real-life characters whose head-scratching tales, intimate details and private conversations will keep you up late turning pages and wondering “Really?”

Conceptually, Bowman’s dizzying quasi history is like that era’s six degrees of separation. It’s not who but who you know … or who you might have known. Consider that the epic novel starts in Mexico City, 1950, where three American expatriates become unlikely acquaintances – soon-to-be Beat Generation demigod William S. Burroughs, chemist Carl Djerassi – who went on to invent “The Pill,” and convicted Watergate conspirator (two decades later) CIA spy E. Howard Hunt. They’re real people; all verifiably in Mexico City at the same time. One of them would claim on his deathbed, in 2007, that he was in on the conspiracy to kill Kennedy. But did their paths cross?

“All the people who are mentioned – just as Bob Dylan sang – I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name,” writes the unreliable narrator, Bowman, in his foreword, defining all history as stories told by someone. “Still, this novel is true history.”

You can read these curious 600-plus pages with Google at the ready, but you’ll never get through it all. Try. Was novelist Saul Bellow at Leon Trotsky’s deathbed in Mexico City? Did then Senator Jack Kennedy and Jackie double date with her sister Lee Radziwell and Ngo Dihn Diem so Lee could determine if the future premier of Vietnam was gay? Did Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra sneak Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev into Disneyland? When then-former vice president Richard Nixon was in Dallas the night before Kennedy was gunned down, did he hook up with actress Joan Crawford? Did flying-saucer-seeing Jimi Hendrix have a close encounter with Bruce Lee in Seattle? Did Texas oilman H.L. Hunt like to “creep” on all fours?

Fact or fiction, the research underlying this book is as massive as the imagination. Its unreliable narrator was clearly obsessed with pulling historical strings to see what unravels.

It’s the unreliable narrator who is key to this literary creation that, at times, feels like it makes more sense then the “histories” written by historians, who some would argue are also unreliable narrators. And that may be one of Bowman’s underlying points.

In the introduction, author Jonathan Lethem calls Bowman, his eccentric friend who died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 2012, a “language dervish” and a forgotten, neglected author whose first novel, the bizarre 1992 dark comedy “Let the Dog Drive,” went largely unnoticed. Bowman’s last novel won’t go unnoticed.

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