Here Comes Everybody

Why is no one reading David Bowman’s Big Bang?

Here Comes Everybody

Andrew Lewis Conn
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It’s right there in the title. A declaration of intent, a self-creation myth, a promise or threat to deliver something epochal. With Big Bang (2019), David Bowman makes naked the writer’s wish, with trumpets blaring, to shoot himself from a canon of his own making. That he succeeded so spectacularly is doubly miraculous, given the author’s backstory and premature death over a decade ago.

Bowman’s six-hundred-page last novel is a great big cabinet of wonders: a cartographer’s mapping of all the years of postwar American life leading up to President Kennedy’s assassination. It’s an encyclopedic work, a Here Comes Everybody doorstop in the spirit of James Joyce, or peak Pynchon, or the Don DeLillo of Underworld (1997), or the Norman Mailer of Harlot’s Ghost (1991)—only it wears its erudition lightly. And, similar to much of Joyce and Pynchon, for all its structural complexity, Bowman’s book isn’t difficult at all. Its surface is pure pleasure; on a page-by-page, sentence-­by-sentence level, the reader is skipping stones.

Rather than following a single protagonist or several strong leads, Big Bang’s collective antihero is baby boom America; the book’s hundreds of short scenes shunt between its mid-century, Hollywood Squares–caliber cast members. Stretched across the book’s canvas is not just the totality of 1950s and early-’60s national political life—JFK and Jackie, E. Howard Hunt and Robert McNamara, Khrushchev at Disney­land and Castro on The Ed Sullivan Show, Pat Nixon cringing through Tricky Dick’s Checkers speech—but the nation’s cultural dream life too. Bowman gives us Monty Clift wrapping his Chevy around a tree trunk, and a young Jimi Hendrix inadvertently carjacking Bruce Lee’s Silver Hawk. In the novel’s pages we have Carl Djerassi creating the Pill and Dr. Spock spooning out parenting advice; Willem de Kooning slugging critic Clement Greenberg at the Cedar Tavern; William Burroughs playing William Tell with his wife; not to mention Howard Hughes juggling three women on New Year’s Eve; and Saul Bellow and Arthur Miller in a Nevada grocery store awaiting their divorce papers, talking about girls. 

If Big Bang is a book of anecdotes—some of which have the rollicking feeling of tall tales—none of it feels extraneous, thanks to the phenomenal, propulsive energy of the prose. The set pieces are spectacular, and, here’s the thing, this book is all set pieces. It’s the Raiders of the Lost Ark of contemporary American fiction—one trailer-­worthy jaw-dropper after another. (I’ll suggest about Bowman what Pauline Kael wrote about Mailer: “His writing is close to the pleasures of movies.”)Bowman gets his who’s who company of players up and moving with a minimum of brushstrokes. The portraits are swift, witty, psychologically sharp. There’s no winking at the reader, not a caricature in the mix. The world-­devourers on display think, move, and talk in ways that feel exactly right—like Bowman had some magic walkie-talkie plugged into the astral frequencies of his novel’s fifteen-year span.1 

Our emotional engagement never lags. A work collaged from scenes no more than a few pages in length, over its many hundreds of pages Big Bang never flounders or spins out of control. Rather, one of the amazements of the novel is how its flywheel narrative approach allows it to achieve a kind of self-generative centripetal power.

The historic scholarship wedded to strutting fanboy confidence is dizzying, delightful, and, in this reader’s experience, unique in our literature. How does Bowman know so much? How does he keep his dozens of plates spinning with such confidence? How does he pull off the trick with such a sense of cool, never slipping into embarrassment or excess, purple prose or parody? How come you and the person who recommended this book to you are the only ones who’ve ever heard of it? Why isn’t everyone reading Big Bang


David Bowman died of a cerebral hemorrhage at age fifty-four in 2012, seven years before Big Bang’s publication. It’s in that knowledge—Bowman posthumously gracing us with a work of this kind of artistic fulfillment, and in considering the book’s beautiful and worrying introduction from his friend Jonathan Lethem—that one’s reading experience gains a special, uncanny valence.

The Bowman that emerges from Lethem’s portrait is a heartbreaker. “Marvelously charismatic,” with ambition that might singe paint from walls, Bowman is also deeply troubled: a person of “stark limitations,” curdled with qualities that—in the absence of the affirming success he’d envisioned—rendered him incapable of engaging in the daily humanity business. The tribute is especially wounding because Lethem at the start of the relationship was something like the junior partner. During the Motherless Brooklyn author’s early innings, Bowman had already won some notoriety for Let the Dog Drive (1992), his high-octane, hallucinatory debut about “searching for the plastic heart of America”2but ultimately Lethem felt the need to distance himself from his troubled friend. For all the quirky specificity Lethem provides about Bowman, his is a classic portrait of the difficult, brilliant people you know whose lives and dreams don’t work out as planned. Read this way, the essay suggests a double portrait: Lethem’s loving resurrection of his friend in the form of an apologia, and a kind of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God confession.

This backstory puts a semi-tragic topspin on your reading of the book. Insofar as every novel is an act of curation—each word filtered through the writer’s experience, sensibility, and linguistic sieve—to say that Big Bang offers a kind of veiled autobiography is syllogistic. What’s especially moving here, however, is how blatantly Bowman sets up his conceit. If the book has an organizing principle, it’s the author’s taste—the posthumously delivered novel gaining a special, spectral urgency, as if Bowman were pointing to the reader from beyond and saying, Look at this! Watch this! Pay attention to all the good stuff here! 

The game of selection and emphasis—the flipping of tarot cards to reveal the picks that Bowman believes are most indicative of the age—is one of Big Bang’s deep pleasures. But, similar to a beachcomber sorting through sea glass to find pieces from which to fashion jewelry, Bowman’s sifting through the cultural detritus of American life is discerning, rapt, intuitive. For example, we get John Huston making The Misfits instead of David Lean clomping through the desert in Lawrence of Arabia; Lucille Ball hanging tough while getting grilled by the House Un-­American Activities Committee rather than Elia Kazan naming names. There’s a lot of Warholian pop in the book, Bowman’s approach to history finding its corollary in Pauline Kael’s sentiment from her 1969 essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies”—the idea that “movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.” The national cake won’t rise, the author seems to be telling us, if the batter doesn’t account for crap culture.

Viewed this way—as a chronicle of its author’s obsessions and the story of an aesthetic education—Big Bang serves as a kind of serendipitous bildungsroman. As a result, the book makes you think deeply about your own pantheon—the things you love, the artists and works that make life worth living—and invites you to chisel your own Mount Rushmore, to compile your own top fives.

Page by page, however, Bowman convinces us that it was this particular bitches’ brew of pop culture and politics, this unconscious pressure cooker, that led to the uncorking of that November day in Dallas. In attempting to capture a comprehensive psychic X-ray of the century previous to this one, an enlivening dream voyage into the mystery of the world that made ours and which still haunts it” (per Lethem), Big Bang is a half-mad book—half-mad in the way of Oliver Stone’s fever dream movie JFK, half-mad in the way of much of Mailer,3 half-mad in the Boy Scouts–meets–torture–porn way of David Lynch at his best and most unsettling. And, similar to those touchstones, it catches the American vapors in ways that feel exactly right.


If Big Bang is Bowman’s answer to Harlot’s Ghost, Mailer’s thrilling, immersive, 1,300-page alternative history of the CIA, and to Underworld, DeLillo’s monumental “wake for the Cold War” (in Martin Amis’s perfect net-catch), those books’ authors are his twin peaks. Bowman pays loving tribute to these literary lodestars; in his pages, Mailer gets shafted by George Plimpton for a night on the town with Hemingway, while DeLillo, a young advertising copywriter on the make, catches a Lenny Bruce set at Café Au Go Go.

Blistering, funny, loving—as inflated with hot air as a Macy’s float—the wild-man-years portrait of Mailer that emerges here is among the book’s glories. In Big Bang,Mailer is American lit’s own cosplaying Dostoyevsky, insisting on his own messianism,4 the artistic imperative of his own stardom, and the necessity of his centrality in the American circus. By contrast, DeLillo is the modest, media-shy observer, the quiet man in the corner. One senses that Bowman inherited in equal parts the former’s grandeur and sense of destiny and the latter’s crosshatching facility with plot and the ability to tune in to the pitter-patter hum of conspiracy. 

These writers have a yin-yang relationship to history. In this regard, it’s intriguing to see how Bowman stays in dialogue with his literary forebears as Big Bang catapults toward its defining historic event. Though DeLillo, in Libra, places Cuban exiles on his grassy knoll, one senses he’s just as interested in the Warren Report as infinite text as he is in resolving the question of whether Oswald acted alone. (Indeed, DeLillo refers to that much-disputed historic document as the novel James Joyce would have written if he’d moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred.”) In Oswald’s Tale (1995)—another of the author’s big, late, not-crazy books—Mailer, who’d always had a prejudice in favor of the conspiracy theorists,ultimately and touchingly comes out on the side of the assassin having acted alone. This fascinating nonfiction novel finds Mailer pushing his muscles against his existential reflexes, working through an idea scarier than any conspiracy. If such a non-entity [as Oswald] destroyed the leader of the most powerful nation on earth,” he writes, “then a world of disproportion engulfs us, and we live in a universe that is absurd.” 

If I’m reading the ending of Big Bang correctly, Bowman concedes as much about the murder of our thirty-fifth president. And, movingly, it’s Bowman’s novelistic impulses that deliver him to that conclusion. The book’s insistence on the individuality of Bowman’s historic actors—the care he lavishes upon the specifics and sloppiness of their human fallibility—mounts a powerful argument against the kind of mass cunning and coordination that conspiracy requires. That Big Bang resolves this way is doubly poignant, given the writer’s gloomy descent into crankdom and 9/11 conspiracy thinking that Lethem charts in his introduction. 


Big Bang is a ballsy book, but joyously, generously so. It’s ballsy like Scorsese pulling off the three­-minute Copacabana Steadicam sequence in Goodfellas, psychologizing the camerawork so the viewer viscerally understands the excitement of being a young gangster; ballsy like Sign O’ the Times–era Prince, when the artist could seemingly pull from the air perfectly formed, genre-defying pop songs every five minutes; ballsy like Sondheim making gorgeous, jaundiced musical theater about throat­-slitting barbers and American assassins; ballsy like Pauline Kael overturning the critical establishment, and the very notion of what a critic’s voice might be, by championing Bonnie and Clyde and Brian De Palma over The Sound of Music and Merchant Ivory. 

If, at the time of writing this celebration of everything he knew and loved, questioned and despised, Bowman—a semi-obscure, no-longer-young author—seemed to be self-consciously bucking for the big time, it wasn’t in a desperate, vaudevillian way, but out of a determined sense of joy. The reader feels in the novel’s pages the exultation of a writer scoping out the furthest reaches of his talent, delighting in the discovery as new vistas open—and you’re held aloft in the grip of Bowman’s confidence, knowing that at this particular moment, rocketing along at peak inspiration and instinct, the ground is solid and our guide cannot put a foot wrong. And something more. If you know the book’s backstory, it’s as if you’re right there with the author, cheering him on, grinning in admiration. Can the dude who didn’t live to see this triumph through actually bring the thing off?

Reader, Bowman lit out for the territory and took the trouble to map it; let’s do him the honor of planting a flag in that loamy soil. Big Bang is a blazing, signal work of American literature—a great book. A stunt and a dare, a howl and a history lesson, a prayer and a party, it’s a novel that leaves one’s eyes bloodshot, nerves crackling, and fingertips smudged from flipping pages, come two in the morning. 

As the book’s title suggests, every literary work of art is a potential conflagration, but it takes a community to light the fuse. In other words, cult status is fine and all, but sometimes canonization is what’s called for. So—look! Here Comes Everybody! Why aren’t you reading Big Bang?

1. If the author is a star, baby, is not “David Bowman” the name of Keir Dullea’s astronaut character in Kubrick’s 2001? Yeah, well, exactly.

2. In this first novel one finds the imagistic uncanniness that will allow Bowman to pin to the board Big Bang’s murderers’ row. Here, roadkill is described as pancaked mammals, snouts pressed into grins,” while a dog resembles a waddling loaf of bread.” The youthful narrator considers an older woman a rocket dropping its stages from higher atmospheres of womanhood than I understood,” while another character is thumbnailed as “a terse Dashiell Hammett sentence on wheels.” Great stuff!

3. When the genius is responding in erratic ways, the observations are incandescent and half-cooked in equal measure, and Mailer mistakes raising the temperature under the Bunsen burner for cognition.

4. This from the author who, upon receipt of a poor review in Time magazine, wrote: “The enemy was more alive than ever, and dirtier in the alley, and so one had to mend, and put on the armor, and go to war, go out to war again, and try to hew huge strokes with the only broadsword God ever gave you, a glimpse of something like Almighty prose.”

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