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Introduction by Jonathan Lethem
By David Bowman
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The Furry Girl School of American Fiction
An Introduction by Jonathan Lethem
1. They Also Wrote
For years I thought I'd begin an essay with the title "They Also Wrote." This wasn't a plan, exactly, but a notion, barely more than a title. The idea was to write a kind of general manifesto on behalf of forgotten authors. I'd likely never have done it. By a certain point I'd made my eccentric preference for out-of-print and neglected fiction, for the noncanonical dark horses—Flann O'Brien over James Joyce, say—abundantly clear (probably irritatingly so, for any reader who was paying attention). With the help of the New York Review of Books imprint, and a few other heroic publishing programs, I'd been involved, a few times, in dragging a few of my pets back into view—Bernard Wolfe, Anna Kavan, Don Carpenter. Other times I'd simply been delighted to see it done, as if according to my whims, but without lifting a finger.
We may be living, in fact, in the great age of "rediscovered" authors. Younger readers want to talk to me, all the time, about Shirley Jackson and John Williams and, of course, Philip K. Dick, who's become so renowned that very few people remember that at the time of his death he was largely forgotten, and out of print. Perhaps at a time when canons have fragmented and been assaulted, and working authors seem compromised by social-media overfamiliarity and three-and-a-half-star verdicts, these honorably silent dark horses are the best repository for our old sacred feeling, the one cultivated in the semiprivacy between a reader and a favorite book. Living writers, now that we've gotten such a close look at them, are pretty embarrassing. Famous authors of the past? Mostly blowhards. Posthumously celebrated writers, on the other hand, all seem to walk under the grace of Kafka's umbrella, with Melville and Emily Dickinson.
Plenty of remarkable books still slip through the rediscovery net. I wouldn't have put money on David Bowman's chances. Certainly, I'd never have imagined that my largely forgotten old friend, author of two slim out-of-print novels and one out-of-print book of music journalism, would be reincarnated in the form of an epic novel about celebrity and power in the postwar twentieth century, one he didn't finish soon enough to submit to publishers before he died. Sure, I'd known Big Bang—which Bowman also sometimes liked to call Tall Cool One—existed. He'd shown me portions of it over the years. I'm probably not the only person who saw pages. But the notion that he'd reached a satisfying conclusion to what seemed his most quixotic writing journey, let alone that anyone would ever usher it into print—this never seemed remotely likely.
No, if Bowman were heard from again, I'd assumed it would be because some dedicated publisher had chosen to reprint his first novel, from 1992, Let the Dog Drive. It was his only success, really, among the three books published during his lifetime, despite being published by NYU Press, and therefore receiving barely anything in the way of a publicity campaign. (The early '90s were an unmatched era in the history of publicity campaigns for novels; it was Bowman who joked to me that when he witnessed Donna Tartt's rollout in Vanity Fair he thought, "Wow, I wish I had a novel out," and then, "Wait a minute, I do have a novel out!") Let the Dog Drive, an antic noir comedy about a dysfunctional family, interspersed literary and pop-cultural references with arresting sex and violence. It gained rave reviews in both the Times Book Review and The New Yorker, despite featuring nothing more in the way of jacket blurbs than an excerpt from a letter to Bowman from Joan Didion, thanking him for mentioning her in the novel. (That he'd written to Didion was, I'd learn, typical of Bowman's ingenuous approach to celebrities, literary and otherwise, who fascinated him; more on this soon.)
During Bowman's 1995 book tour for the Penguin paperback of Let the Dog Drive he visited Diesel Books, in Oakland, California. I was one of a handful who attended. I asked him to autograph my copy of the NYU hardcover and gave him a copy of my then-fresh first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music. Bowman inscribed my copy, "to Jonathan—six figures in your future!" Bowman candidly dreamed of glory for both of us, from the inception of our friendship. Yet it was our dual marginality that created the bond. From this point I'm implicated in every story I have to tell you about David Bowman. I'm incapable of introducing him without committing memoir.
2. The Bowman Tapes
Bowman returned to New York, and I stayed, for the moment, in my garret in Berkeley. Almost immediately, we'd talk on the phone nearly every day. Bowman was my first conduit to the contemporary literary New York City of the late '90s, which I was now working my courage up to enter, and which was almost wholly mysterious to me; growing up in Brooklyn hadn't constituted any form of preliminary encounter. Bowman was marvelously charismatic on the phone. His tone amused and conspiratorial, he began every call in medias res, with the word "—so…" Then he'd leap in midstream, resuming some trailing thought from an earlier conversation, even if it was only one he'd been having with himself.
Yet the phone wasn't enough. Bowman besieged me with charmingly nutty handwritten letters, many of them containing scissor-and-glue-pot collages, usually incorporating elements from the New York tabloids—Page Six squibs concerning the kinds of writers who generated Page Six squibs: Mailer, McInerney, his beloved Didion, or downtown figures who'd risen to stardom, like Patti Smith, Jim Jarmusch, David Byrne—combined with Bowman's own cartoonish Sharpie scribbles, or his personal erotic photography. He'd call these cut-ups "charms"—they were meant to convey writerly luck. One I still have tacked up over my desk was called the "Dancing DeLillos Charm": a row of Rockettes with Don DeLillo's head atop each dancer.
Yet there's more: the Bowman tapes. He and his wife regularly rented a cabin in Montauk, and while there he'd pace the beach, drinking beer, and monologuing to me into a tape recorder. The cassettes arrived in the mail, incoherently labeled. I'd pop them into my car or home tape player and listen. They were hypnotic, outlandish, and boring at once. Bowman's monologues were elaborately themed—usually some variation on his obsession with writerly ambition, and how it was cursed for him, for me, and nearly anybody, by the afflictions of personal fate. He'd inaugurate each rant with certain key phrases to which he'd return, as if in song. Bowman was a master at a kind of verbal plate-spinning routine, but he was also a helpless digressionist, and sometimes a plate on the far side of the stage would be forgotten for twenty minutes or more. Sometimes you'd have to flip the tape over to find out if he'd forgotten his theme.
This is improbable, but much about Bowman is improbable. He sent more tapes than I found time to listen to. I recall my girlfriend complaining about how they'd begun filling up the floor space in the passenger side of my Toyota Corolla. I did my best to keep up, but it was hopeless. On the tapes, Bowman's dreams and schemes were interspersed with the crunch of his feet on the wet Montauk beach at night, and though I haven't listened to one of the Bowman tapes in nearly two decades, I can still hear that gravel crunch and the heavy breathing of his pauses for thought, as if it recurs in my nightly dreams.
3. The Lot 49 Method
Bowman's loyalty and generosity were simply immense, in those first years, while I remained stranded in Berkeley, far from the action, and our friendship was conducted by phone, tape, and charm. After three books, I'd been orphaned at Harcourt Brace and needed a new publisher, but I was a pretty small fish. My agent had an offer from Doubleday, but Bowman, working behind the scenes, turned it into a small auction with his own publisher, Little, Brown. (I landed at Doubleday.) The book in question needed a new title, the first task I needed to perform for my shiny new publisher, and I was flailing. Bowman walked me through it: use the Lot 49 Method, he told me. I had to ask what he meant. "'The Crying of Lot 49' is the last line of The Crying of Lot 49," he explained. "What's the last line of your book?" I looked: my last line included the phrase "as she climbed across the table." That same book was blurbless. Bowman, acting on his own, forced it on, of all people, Jim Harrison. Likely bewildered but charmed, as people tended to be on early encounter with Bowman's manic style, Jim Harrison improbably gave forth with a blurb. I doubt my new publisher had any idea how that happened—I barely understood it myself—but they probably assumed Harrison had been my teacher somewhere, or had been a friend of my dad's.
4. The Furry Girl School
At some point early on Bowman coined a name for us: the Furry Girl School of American Fiction. He'd named it after a character in my second novel, Amnesia Moon—a girl, specifically, who was furry. I don't mean "furry" in the modern polymorphously perverse sense of a fetish for dressing up in costumes and having sex—I mean that her body was covered in light fur. To Bowman, the character was an emblem of what he and I loved most in the books we loved: 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. A book could be impressive without containing this quality, which was quickly shortened to "Furry." In Bowman's reasoning—always comprised of instantaneous certainties—almighty DeLillo, for instance, had written books both Furry (End Zone, White Noise) and not (Players, Underworld). Mailer had never been Furry in his life. Chandler was Furry, Ellroy not. And so on. Swept up, anointed, I consented even when it made no sense, and we indexed the whole world on the Furry Scale.
The Furry Girl School needed a female member—this was my suggestion, and I nominated a writer named Cathryn Alpert, who'd written a funny, Furry, and in some ways Bowmanesque novel called Rocket City. From the clues (small-press publication in hardcover, for one thing) Alpert was as much outsider, as much dark horse, as Bowman and I felt ourselves to be. We called or emailed, out of the blue; or possibly I turned up at a reading and announced us to her. Bowman's charms worked at a distance (perhaps they worked best at a distance), and Cathryn Alpert, who'd heard of neither of us before this, quickly consented. The Furry Girl School had three members now.
5. Chloe and Snoot
David Bowman would turn out to be one of the most isolated people I've ever known—isolated on the profoundest levels by a certain traumatic displacement from ordinary human consolation. Yet on a day-to-day basis he wasn't strictly alone. Bowman had a wife. Chloe Wing was older than Bowman, and seemed almost infinitely kind and patient with him, if sometimes also rather distant, impassive (later, I'd view this as a survival trait on Chloe's part). He also had a dog, the beloved Snoot, a tall black-and-white hound with sensitive paws. Snoot suffered: he endured treatments to his paws, and for digestive troubles, and other ailments. Bowman, helpless in his devotion, suffered with the dog.
When I moved back to New York City and first visited Bowman and Chloe and Snoot in their beautiful Manhattan apartment, his life seemed enviable. From the distance of California my new friend had appeared to know so many editors and writers. I was now ready to be swept up in his world, to begin our friendship in person, rather than long-distance. In fact, up close, my great friend was quickly exposed to me as a person whose stark limitations, whose damage, were the equal of his charisma and brilliance. Almost overnight, I began at some level to take care of Bowman, instead of the reverse.
6. Dogboy and Sarge
If David Bowman was such a dear friend, why do I keep calling him Bowman? Well, I never called him David. To others, I called him Bowman, as he'd called me Lethem, to others. It was Bowman's habit always and only to last-name writers (Didion, Lish, Moody, et al.). Then he'd adopt hard-and-fast nicknames for interpersonal address. At his suggestion, I called him Dogboy, and he called me, at first, Amnesia Boy, after my second novel, Amnesia Moon. Pretty soon he switched me to Sarge, which was how he addressed me for the rest of his life. Bowman called me Sarge because, he explained, he always followed my commands, as if in a war movie, as if we were going over a hill.
The "commands" in question? I'd tell Bowman not to do things. After I'd moved to New York I'd begun to realize how he was serially alienating the magazine editors upon whom he depended, as well as his book publicists and other editorial subordinates. He freaked people out with his bizarre pitches, his strange, insinuating late-night calls and emails, his impetuous rages over poorly specified minor betrayals. He knew many writers and editors, yes, but now I saw that nearly all of them had learned, or were learning, or would soon learn, to treat him with kid gloves. There came a point when I understood I'd never met anyone who devoted as large a share of his (vast) creative energy to impulses that were sheerly disastrous, that he had to be talked out of.
I failed, at the time, to concern myself with the recipients of Bowman's tirades. Some of the villains who incensed him might have earned it—like the businessman who'd once kicked at Snoot on Second Avenue—but this can't be true of all the publishing operatives at whom he uncorked. To my shame, my interventions weren't so much with his victims in mind as they were intended to save Bowman from himself.
Bowman loved beer and traveled to a special warehouse in Brooklyn to purchase the exotic imported bottles he craved. This was nearly the only thing that could get him onto the subway—he otherwise preferred to walk Snoot on the Lower East Side, or to stay at home.
Bowman loved Bob Dylan, inordinately, and collected Dylan bootlegs, but to my astonishment had never been to see Dylan play live. Bowman loved Patti Smith, inordinately. He loved her earliest music, raging and foul-mouthed, and he seemed always to be searching for an equivalent in his curiosity about PJ Harvey, Thea Gilmore, and so forth. He loved Marianne Faithfull, too; fair to say he was electrified by foul-mouthed women in general. He loved Lou Reed, Gillian Welch, Thomas Carlyle, Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, Dr. Seuss, and dogs.
Bowman loved New York City. He'd come from elsewhere—Wisconsin, then Vermont—but embraced the city without looking back. The city's greatest exponents seem to latch on to it as Balzac's Lucien Chardon latches on to Paris, in Lost Illusions, after arriving from the provinces: Dawn Powell, Andy Warhol, et al.
Bowman loved film noir, but I don't recall him caring particularly for film otherwise. I don't recall any affection for soul music, or science fiction, or food in general. He lived a few blocks from Veselka but declined ever to meet me there for the late-night plates of pierogies that reminded me so much of my teenage years—frequenting Veselka's again had been one of the several things I was sure I'd moved back to New York City to do.
8. The Truck
On Montauk, in 1989, Bowman had been walking alone on a road when he was hit and nearly killed by a truck (his Times obituary reads "car," but he always called it a truck when we spoke). He suffered major head trauma and was in a coma for a month, during which he was ministered to by his wife, Chloe, to whom he said he owed his life. Let the Dog Drive was largely finished before the accident, but when he awoke from his coma he wasn't aware he'd written a book, and had to read the draft dozens of times before he understood that it was up to him to finish it. His friend Eric Schneider, to whom it is dedicated, told his obituarist, Paul Vitello, that the book "helped him remember who he was."
This may be true. It surely is, in part. But it is also the case that the last portions of Let the Dog Drive portray scenes of torture and revenge that plunge the book into a darkness for which the earlier two-thirds have scantly prepared a reader to endure. I didn't have Chloe's or Eric Schneider's luck, of knowing Bowman both before and after the accident. I do know that one of Bowman's alternative nicknames for himself was Vengeance Boy—and that as long as I knew him he saw himself as wronged by the universe. I know that he saw himself as a person who suffered, on a daily basis, and sought alleviation in beer, rock and roll, and fantasies of righteous justice being inflicted on his many persecutors. He could offer humorous perspective on his condition, but it wasn't something over which he appeared to have any control.
David Bowman died, in 2012, of a massive brain hemorrhage. I'd moved back to California just a year before, and I learned of his death from Chloe, who reached me by telephone. I was stunned. Bowman and I had been out of touch for a year or more, and the news I feared was the reverse: I knew Chloe was mortally sick with cancer, and that Bowman might at some point tell me that he had been left even more alone in the world. (Chloe did follow, a year later.)
"He walked into our bedroom and told me he had a terrible headache," Chloe told me, and explained that he then fell to the floor and was dead within minutes. "It was a good death," she added, whether to console me or herself or because she felt it was so, I don't know. It seemed to me a parenthesis had closed, as though the truck had come to claim him. How strange to consider that the years between the injury and his death, the twenty-three years in which he published three books and wrote at least two more, the years in which I'd known him, could be seen as merely a kind of dispensation.
The question I can't avoid: how much was Vengeance Boy a product of brain trauma?
9. Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues
In the first flush of my return to New York, in the period when I projected Bowman as one of my great life's companions, without qualification, and before I'd understood how difficult it was for him to be out of his self-soothing routines, without his Snoot walks, and away from his desk and telephone, I dragged him to a Bob Dylan concert. I saw this as my duty. I was seeing Dylan live a lot in that period.
The concert was in New Jersey, at the Performing Arts Center in Newark. I was riding there with my friend Michael, and others, and I arranged to pick Bowman up at his doorstep. This was a great calamitous carload of fools wreathed in pot smoke, and in retrospect I'm amazed that I lured Bowman into the back seat. He had a wide-eyed daft look that said he was amazed himself to have been lured. He wore a long trench coat, buttoned to the neck. "I just hope he plays 'Tom Thumb's Blues,'" Bowman said, and I warned him not to expect it; Dylan rarely plays that song, and never plays what you most wish to hear. Of course, we arrived late to the concert, in a crazy fever to park and go inside. We'd calculated our trip to miss the opening act, a regular sport for me and Michael when Dylangoing, so Dylan was already playing.
At the routine frisk inside the turnstiles, a security guard made Bowman open his trench coat. Immediately visible were two beers, Bowman's beloved imported bottles, one in each of his flannel shirt's pockets. Bowman gave a sheepish shrugging smile, one I'll never forget. The guard, shaking his head, confiscated the bottles. We rushed up to the highest level of the auditorium to find our seats in the dark. As we sat, Bowman frisked himself this time, reproducing the sheepish smile. He revealed a bottle that had survived the guard's inspection. Then another, and another—he still possessed three bottles, which had been secreted who-knows-where, in his sleeves or in the trench coat's interior pockets. As we took our seats, gazing down on Dylan and his band's heads from the upper deck, Dylan finished one song and began another: "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues."
10. Bunny Has a Hairball
Let the Dog Drive gave Bowman his chance to move to a major publisher. He followed his eccentric book with an even more eccentric one, called Bunny Modern, set in a future where electricity has vanished, and armed nannies protect a diminishing pool of babies from kidnappers while cranked up on a drug called Vengeance. Around the time I moved back to New York Bowman was revising the pages obsessively; his expectations for the book were immense. When he finally showed it to me he delivered it in what he called the Bunny Box—a kind of three-dimensional collage object, much larger than it needed to be to contain what was a very brief manuscript. His impatience for me to read it, and sanctify it as "Furry," was formidable.
There came a strange misadventure. This was before cell phones. I'd read the book overnight, and Bowman had stood by for my assessment, but I had some kind of urgent appointment, and had to leave word with my friend Maureen, knowing he'd call. The phrase I asked Maureen to pass along was "The Bunny is Furry." Maureen, panicked by Bowman's urgency, blurted out, "The Bunny has a hairball." Bowman exploded. She apologized, but it was too late. An hour or two later, when I was able to reach him directly, his only words for me were "The Bunny has a hairball? The Bunny has a hairball?" He'd sat stewing, drinking beer, and trying to interpret Maureen's colorful slip. The only interpretations he could hit on were dire ones. I worked to calm him down.
Maureen might have been prescient. There were U.S. writers who'd lately preceded Bowman in offering dystopian fantasias under the cover of traditional literary publishing: Steve Erickson, Katherine Dunn, Paul Auster. Kirstin Bakis's Lives of the Monster Dogs had found a nice success in New York the year before. Bowman was envious—dogs were his thing—but also believed it auspicious for his book. Yet he was at least ten years ahead of the great fashion for dystopias in highbrow circles, and anyhow, hadn't judged how his book's slightness, and its vein of real perversity, might play against it.
Bowman had been a dark-horse success with Let the Dog Drive, but now he'd lost a major publisher some money, and, worse, exhausted their good faith with his badgering calls and office visits. The book's failure wasn't another truck, perhaps, but it sliced off another layer of Bowman's droll, perversely jubilant outlook, and deepened his sense of being misused by fate, perhaps even being conspired against—by whom, exactly, he wouldn't have been able to say.
11. Shit on Your Shoes
Yet Bowman was never self-pitying. Were I tempted to wallow or complain at some disappointment inflicted on my own aspirations—the fact that As She Climbed across the Table had gone completely unreviewed in the New York Times, say, leaving me, despite my new publisher's exertions, still a cult quantity—Bowman would offer a kind of non-commiseration commiseration. He'd invoke a favorite term: "Sarge," he'd say, "you've got shit on your shoes." I wish I could reproduce for you the tone of affectionate philosophical mordancy with which he'd pronounce it. (In fact, it's surely on the tapes, a dozen times over.)
By "shit on your shoes" Bowman meant, in my case, that I'd had my early stories published in science-fiction magazines, and attended science-fiction conventions, and traded blurbs with science-fiction writers, and not concealed or apologized for those facts. In his own case, he meant his publication with NYU Press—and in both our cases, the fact that (unlike Kirstin Bakis) we'd come in the door with no MFA program or Ivy League pedigree. We'd simply walked in with shit on our shoes, such that those with a nose averse to the kinds of shit we bore would reliably shun us. In fact, this isn't too lousy a diagnosis of an awful lot of literary fate-casting: that the first impression, or size of the first advance, was predeterminative in any but the luckiest or most tenacious of cases. For Bowman this was something to sigh over, to open a bottle of beer over. And then he'd resume work.
12. Bowman Also Wrote
The brevity of his two published novels notwithstanding, Bowman was a workaholic, and as voluminous on the page as on the tapes. Because his brain injury had made his eyesight difficult, and made him prone to headaches, he edited his pages at a giant font size, sixteen- or eighteen-point, as I remember it. (He blew his font up to an even more enormous size for public readings, I learned, when we gave one together at KGB, the two of us along with Amanda Fillipacci playing to an absolutely packed room for what was only my second-ever reading in New York City—a thrilling event for me.) In the years following Bunny Modern he worked on three fiction projects concurrently: Big Bang (or Tall Cool One); another novel in the phantasmagorical vein of Bunny Modern, called Women on the Moon; and a novella based on a conflation of Theodore Kaczyinski's antitechnological manifesto and Kafka's Letter to His Father, called either The Unabomber's Letter to His Father or, confusingly, A Letter to His Unabomber. Also confusingly, Bowman sent me portions of all three manuscripts, but never an entirety (perhaps superstitious of another hairball assessment), or even a first chapter. Even more confusingly, his spelling in first-draft work was always and persistently terrible, either because of some kind of dyslexia or because of his brain injury, I wasn't sure.
So much about Bowman was increasingly confusing and dismaying to me. Had he really telephoned X or Y and said aloud what he'd told me he'd said aloud to them? Why would anyone do these things? I'd run into writers Bowman had introduced me to, initially, and when his name came up, they'd shake their heads, and describe some kind of breach or ultimatum or farcical misconstruction that had come between them. I'd like to say I defended him, or apologized for him—there were times when I did. But Sarge couldn't work miracles, couldn't preempt every crisis, couldn't work in retrospect, or erase words he'd spoken aloud.
- "During this vast assembly, there are plenty of examples of Bowman's talent....In all of his novels, there's vitality, humor and imagination that deserve to be remembered."—New York Times
- "There are dozens of plots, which Bowman juggles with an agility that's breathtaking... he writes with a real focus... His prose is elegant but stubbornly unshowy. "Big Bang" is a stunningly accomplished novel, both deeply American and deeply weird."—Los Angeles Times
"Big Bang is a historical novel like no other I've read. Alternately sharp and generous, it is not so much a recitation verité as an emceed re-enactment of key events of the 50s and early 60s."
—Susan Isaacs, New York Times bestselling author of Goldberg Variations and As Husbands Go
- On Sale
- Nov 19, 2019
- Page Count
- 624 pages
- Back Bay Books