David Bowman - this madcap odyssey tells of a hitchhiker of strange origin and a frenetic red-headed Detroit housewife as they experience it all--from tainted hallucinatory cacti in Texas to gunplay with Iranian terrorists in Coney Island. A freewheeling tale with sharp-edged wit and brilliantly chaotic style.
David Bowman, Let the Dog Drive, New York University Press, 1992.
It's 1975. Bud Salem, 18-years-old, is fleeing his mother's TV church and meets a woman pitching oranges in the Mojave. She's Sylvia Cushman, a 45-year-old housewife, who loves driving alone through the desert. They odyssey through western motels and Apache gas stations where Sylvia gives long lectures about Emily Dickinson and drags Bud up into the mesas to search for petroglyphs. After sharing adventures in Detroit, New York, and Amherst, the travelers part...
In many ways Let the Dog Drive is an askew detective novel— when a character dies under strange circumstances in Texas, Bud goes to the panhandle to uncover what happened. His strange narration does contain pleasures of the genre: a shootout inside an aquarium; a faked death; another shootout on a chicken farm in Texas... But Let the Dog Drive is also a freewheeling merging of many other genres and concerns-- Hollywood, hardboiled novels of the 1930s, Emily Dickinson's white dress, hallucinatory cacti, The Book of Luke... And dogs.
"You'd think nothing would live up to this title, but the book, being more generous as well as witty, more than tops it... incandescent.”—The New Yorker
Bowman's picaresque first novel, winner of the publisher's 1992 Elmer Holmes Bobst Award for Emerging Writers, follows the wildly unlikely love affair of the hitchhiking young son of a TV evangelist with a middle-aged Detroit housewife: playful if insubstantial fare in the Tom Robbins tradition. It's the mid-70's and 18-year-old Bud Salem--a weak-chinned boy whose obese mother leads prayer sessions on TV, whose dead father was a Hollywood private eye, and whose major talent is his ability to read hard-boiled detective novels while driving--takes his hitching thumb to the highway in an attempt to escape his horrific California past. He's soon picked up by another lost soul on the lam: Sylvia Cushman, the fast-talking, red-haired wife of an auto-specialist who regularly abandons her home in Detroit to go on unrestrained cross-country driving sprees. An Emily Dickinson freak who likes to dress in 40's evening wear and pitch oranges out her car window, Sylvia takes Bud on the ride of his sheltered life before abruptly dumping him outside of Toledo when it's time to go home. Forsaken but not helpless, Bud tracks Sylvia down in the suburbs of Detroit--only to find that her life is devoted all too unromantically to her massively allergic younger son, her master's thesis on Dickinson, and her dour, unresponsive husband, whose job description includes crashing test cars that have live dogs as passengers. Appalled, Bud longs to set Sylvia free--but after many a mind-boggling encounter with Iranian terrorism, religious conversion, suicide, and castration threats, it's writing, rather than living, that Bud learns to love. A garish, thrill-a-minute roller-coaster ride, always bold if not particularly inspiring. - Kirkus Reviews
The outside of this book is beautiful; the title is a knockout, and the author, David Bowman, is "currently working" on a biography of Paul Cain, one of the most elusive and seductive hard-boiled novelists of the '30s.
So you get out your dog-eared copy of Paul Cain's "The Fast One," open its grubby pages and read: "Kells walked north on Spring. At Fifth he turned west, walked two blocks, turned into a small cigar store."
Ah! The simplicity, and the promise of violence to come: the dozens of bullets that Kells will soon take--with equanimity--and the ice pick stab to his ribs. If David Bowman loves Paul Cain, what can go wrong?
But the difference between "The Fast One" and "Let the Dog Drive" is the difference between a pound cake and a fruitcake. In one, everything extraneous has been taken out. In the other, everything extraneous has been thrown in.
In 1976, Bud Salem--son of an obese and totally crazy woman television evangelist--wanders in the Western American desert and meets an attractive, 40ish matron, Sylvia Cushman. She drives around in a futile attempt to escape from her sociopathic husband, pitching oranges from her car at passersby. She picks up Bud, and takes to calling him "Orange Boy."
The young lad has myriad problems. Beyond his evangel-mother, he is also burdened with an eccentric grandfather who wrote many hard-boiled novels (his protagonist was named Tim Fontanel). His father really was a detective but a villainous one--an amoral Peeping Tom snoop who roamed Hollywood in the '40s taking pictures of celebrities in compromising positions.
Together, Bud and Sylvia go on an odyssey of sorts, sleeping in motels, making their way east, "looking for the plastic heart of America." Sylvia has her own worries. She has an older son, Ben, an extremely troubled musician, a younger son, Lester, who's riddled with mysterious allergies, and a husband who has suffered an almost indescribable affliction (he can't stand sound ).
This husband is lower than a toad. He works for the American car industry. When Bud shows up as a house guest, Cushman treats him like a Japanese sedan. He takes "Orange Boy" out to a testing ground where he straps four sweet dogs into a big American car and sends the car careening full blast into a wall.
Bud picks up the narrative here: "The Dalmatian dips his head again and slides out of the car. And then I see what can't be right--because the dog that slides out of the driver's seat is only the front of the dog--the front of the dog still alive. . . ." Well, there's hard-boiled, and there's really gross . As a foil to all this American-made violence, Sylvia is writing her thesis on Emily Dickinson; is obsessed with the number of poems that spinster wrote, and the smoldering passions she nourished. "Orange Boy" sharing Sylvia's obsession with Dickinson, is concerned that as the poet got older, she gained weight, becoming almost as thick through the middle as his own mother.
It's not unfair to say that this book smacks of pastiche. It's not only full of allusions to made-up hard-boiled novels like "Hot Guns Don't Lie," and to real artifacts like "The Black Mask," the great periodical of the hard-boiled genre, but it also takes as its subject film noir, debased American Christianity and debased American industry.
If that isn't enough, there are overcooked references to the aforementioned Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, Marcel Proust, and to that form of erotica which pairs beautiful women and handsome dogs. The narration takes on the character of all these subjects. It's jumpy and jerky and self-conscious and clever. It's either way-hip and trendy, or already passe beyond words, and the final word on that probably depends on the particular person who reads it.
One wonders what Paul Cain, that wonderful hard-boiled novelist, would have thought of this book. His own detective, Kells, is evoked here, as is Sam Spade, Lew Archer, and many many other fictional private eyes.
When "Orange Boy" decides to write a hard-boiled novel of his own, he invents "Bud Crowley"--which reminds me that "Bud," as the narrator's name, is only mentioned--that I could see--on the book jacket.
It takes all kinds of people to make a world, and all kinds of writers to make a literature. Many people will love "Let the Dog Drive." But I turned with relief to Paul Cain's honest prose and Detective Kells, as he roamed the mean streets of Los Angeles, who took his three dozen bullets and his ice pick thrust, drove for miles up PCH, turned into a dark canyon where " . . . After a little while, life went away from him."
Pound cake or fruitcake. Pay your money, and take your choice. - CAROLYN SEE
David Bowman, Bunny Modern, Back Bay Books, 1999.
The trade paperback edition of David Bowman's prizewinning first novel, Let the Dog Drive, has developed a cult following. Now Bowman's exuberantly praised second novel -- a hard-boiled comedy about love, abduction, and child care, set in a future where electricity has disappeared and fertility is on the wane, but human passions are as messy as ever --
Imagine killer nannies patrolling the streets of New York, their baby carriages bristling with automatic weapons, even as prowling, infertile parent-wannabes make desperate grabs at the carriages' precious cargo.... This is the premise of David Bowman's novel, Bunny Modern, an apocalyptic millenarian view of New York in the 21st century. The city is without electricity, a phenomenon some attribute to electrons flying backward in time to that day when Bob Dylan went electric at the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival. This unfortunate reversal in the electrical current also seems to have affected sperm production, which accounts for the plummeting birthrate in New York and, in turn, the gun-toting nannies. Bowman laid claim to this sort of manic, hallucinatory fiction in his first novel, Let the Dog Drive, and Bunny Modern takes it to dizzying new heights. Sex, drugs, and appliance worship--dystopia never looked so intriguing.
In the postmillennial world of this work, electricity has disappeared, taking with it love and fertility and creating a society where armed, drug-taking nannies guard the few remaining children from babynappers. Here, former child actor Dylan becomes fixated on Clare, a young nanny caring for Soda, the oddly named, oddly affecting infant son of elderly New Jersey parents. Fusing the hard-boiled thriller with the literary novel and blending in references to everything from silent films to old Bob Dylan songs, Bowman creates a parallel universe where people wear clothes named for 19th-century authors and build shrines to their appliances. While this work is undeniably an imaginative tour de force, readers may be left feeling a bit in the dark about what Bowman is ultimately up to here. Shortlisted in the Granta "Best American Novelists Under Forty," issue, Bowman won New York University's Elmer Holmes Bobst Award for Let the Dog Die in 1994. - Lawrence Rungren
For a review of David Bowman’s Bunny Modern (Little, Brown; $21.95) to avoid the words pistol-packing nanny would be an insult to the spirit of Bowman’s futuristic farce. His nannies pack Glocks, Colts, even sawed-off shotguns, all in the name of baby protection. Conception has become so rare, in the book’s darkened America, that the few babies there are squall under constant threat of kidnapping. The hardened child-care providers snort Vengeance, a drug designed to produce tough-love schizophrenia: While they will lay down their lives for their charges, these nannies hate the sight of a nappy. It gets zanier, and more cutting, from there, as Bowman introduces Lit Wear (best garment: an “I Could Not Stop for Death” blouse); the dancing Lindy family; and a mind-meld technique known as sheldraking. Like Mark Leyner without the dirty jokes, or Mark O’Donnell without the camp, Bowman is spinning a future out of our worst nightmares of pretension. - Alexandra Lange
A guy could go crazy stating the plot to "Bunny Modern." The narrator, Dylan Carlyle, was a child TV star. Then a private eye. Now he reads women's minds. He's just fallen for a gun-toting nanny named Clare -- artillery and nannies not an unusual combo in Manhattan circa 2020, where fertility is waning and kidnapping rampant. There's also no electricity as Con Ed's juice is flowing backwards in time to Newport, R.I., circa 1966, when Bob Dylan first went publicly electric.
Whew! What a story. Let me say up front that I found "Bunny Modern" a terrific second novel: funny, smart and boisterous. My judgment is suspect, I know. Not because I wrote "Bunny Modern," but because this novel is fashionably reckless while I myself am obsessed with 19th century literature. I mean, just look at my bookcase: One shelf devoted to Emily Dickinson. Two rows for Melville. And every book Thomas Carlyle wrote, including all nine volumes of "Frederick the Great." How could I enjoy reading something so "postmodern"?
Well, why not call "Bunny Modern" "post-rabbit" as well? The book just seems modern (i.e. "trendy") because of its self-conscious narrator, yet that narrative technique is as old as "Tristram Shandy." Bowman's sentences themselves are as flamboyant as Laurence Sterne's, while also resembling Amy Hempel's or Mark Richard's -- the three moderns all former students of Gordon Lish, i.e., the 1980s "Captain Fiction" (although privately Bowman refers to the former Knopf editor as "King Lear"). Bowman only took the man's notoriously expensive workshop for six months, which was long enough to learn Lish's secret formula: The second sentence comes out of the first sentence. The third sentence comes out of the second sentence. And the fourth comes out of the third. And so on.
This technique sounds deceptively simple, but it allowed Bowman to flourish because his simple talent is comparing apples to oranges, comparisons made more palatable when the sentences bob along like gentle waves in a pond. A duck pond. For example, in "Bunny Modern" Bowman compares Fred Astaire's dancing to the state of redemption, and Alexander Graham Bell to endless love, comparisons made successful because (for example) the sentence concerning "Endless Love" comes out of the previous sentence concerning the inventor of the telephone. (Hear Bowman's ducks go, "Quack! Quack! Quack!")
The one flaw in "Bunny Modern" is that the book has an open ending, much like the author's first novel, "Let the Dog Drive." The ending of "Bunny" may confuse some readers as to Bowman's ultimate intentions. Let me clear things up. Originally "Bunny Modern" was 400 pages, not 200. A long book. And long books benefit from open endings. Then Bowman cut the manuscript in half, but kept the original ending -- which might now seem too opaque for some readers.
Not that this should put anyone off from "Bunny Modern." As it's always a good idea to end a review by comparing the novelist to a well-known writer, let me say that David Bowman is a mongrel Richard Brautigan and Dashiell Hammett. Or maybe a mix of Brautigan and Hammett and Thomas Merton (because Bowman has this Christ thing going on). On the other hand, it may be easier to think of Bowman as a painter -- Hieronymus Bosch merged with Mary Cassatt. If Bowman were Bob Dylan, he'd write songs that were crosses between "Visions of Joanna" and "Wiggle, Wiggle." If Bowman were Bill Clinton, he'd go dancing on the beach with the ghost of Lillian Gish instead of scoring deep throat from some dopey intern. But Bowman is Bowman. And "Bunny Modern" is a book that is as wild and spooky as these wild, spooky days we're living through. - David Bowman
Our civilization is suddenly bereft of electric current. Skyscrapers are reduced to dark hulks; radios and TV sets go mute; the phone system becomes a useless cobweb strung out across a continent that plunges at every sunset into old-fashioned, gaslit gloom. That's the premise of this freewheeling second novel from Bowman (Let the Dog Drive), one of Granta's ""Best American Novelists Under 40."" In Bowman's near-future dystopia (circa 2017), appliances aren't all that's on the fritz; fertility (and love) are also in a sad state of disrepair. Apparently the old glow is gone, allegorically and for real. The few babies who are produced are rarities, tempting legions of babynappers, which in turn spawns an industry of violent, usually unloving nanny-bodyguards. The narrative follows the wooing of Clare--a sharpshooting nanny who experiences inexplicable flashes of tenderness for her latest charge--by a middle-aged former child star named Dylan. Although it never becomes clear what the electrical blackout has to do with the erotic brownout, Bowman almost makes up for this lack of causality with wonderful, rather Zen comic passages on Bob Dylan, fashion, Fred Astaire and what baby talk is really about. Even readers who feel that his provocations lack novelistic depth may admire Bowman for his millennial chutzpah. - Publishers Weekly
A near-future romantic fantasy in which electricity has vanished and most couples are infertile--creating the need for gun- toting warrior-nannies to protect the few infants still being born: a second novel no less wacky and wired than its predecessor (Let the Dog Drive, 1993). In Manhattan's Washington Square Park, a chance encounter brings narrator Dylan across the path of nanny Clare just as she foils a babynapping with a neat trick shot that blows away the wife of the childless couple attempting the abduction. It is, of course, love at first sight. Dylan uses his mysterious powers to read Clare's mind and learns that their fates are to be entwined through her next assignment: a job in Jersey with a singing and dancing elderly couple and their six-month-old son, Soda. Though Clare, like all nannies, is addicted to Vengeance, a drug that makes her trigger-happy while deadening her bonding instincts, she still falls for Soda, who proves to be most unusual. Dylan inserts himself in Clare's life at this point, since he has an interest in Soda's parents as well, and the two begin working as a team. They break into the headquarters of the nanny service in search of information, learning the full story--that Soda has been the same age for 40 years--and in the process making themselves likely candidates for assassination. But, wonder of wonders, electricity returns in the nick of time, bringing chaos but allowing Clare and Dylan to escape. After making certain that the unique Soda is safe, the two go back to Clare's place in the bright, shining city to make sparks of their own--until a knock at her door heralds yet another change in plans. Being out on the edge, as this one is, has its appeal, but with the tale's wild windings comes a large dose of gimmickry and calculation, rendering the whole hard to follow and harder to swallow. - Kirkus Reviews
t'S the 21st century and there have been a few changes in New York City as we know it. Electricity is a thing of the past, thanks to the catastrophic Millennial Blackout. There are those who insist that all electrical current is now flowing backward through time to the day Bob Dylan went electric at Newport. With electrons hurtling backward, the theory goes, sperm are now following suit, backstroking away from eggs, which explains why Manhattan's birth rate is down to two a day. Babies are in such short supply that the streets are filled with nannies who carry major firearms and shoot to kill. Mankind, it seems, is experiencing ''a brownout of the heart.''
The mysterious connection between sex and electricity is more or less the subject of ''Bunny Modern,'' David Bowman's feverish new novel, a disturbing book-length hallucination crammed with toxic babies, pay-phone shrines and the occasional stripper in a monster mask. If all this sounds preposterously twisted, keep in mind that Bowman is just getting started. The author made a name for himself with his first novel, ''Let the Dog Drive,'' a manic tour de force that earned him New York University's Elmer Holmes Bobst Award in 1992. In ''Bunny Modern,'' he pushes his take-no-prisoners narrative style to new heights of logorrheic overdrive. Readers who get the feeling they've bought a nonrefundable ticket on a runaway bullet train to nowhere are best advised to strap themselves in and hang on for dear life: once the train has left the station, there's no turning back. The drastic baby shortage means that ninja nannies like Clare, the book's antiheroine, spend their days protecting coveted infants from infertile babynappers. To keep themselves on their toes, nannies sniff lines of Vengeance, a narcotic that sharpens their appetite for murder but prevents them from bonding with their little bundles of joy. As Clare puts it, ''We're simple homicidal child-care workers.'' The hard-boiled Clare is being stalked by Dylan, a former child actor who can intuit the experiences and memories of women, a handy talent for a narrator. Fueled by the mounting tension between Clare and Dylan, ''Bunny Modern'' charges along at full speed through an increasingly dystopian landscape. Here's an all-night appliance store ''where the faithful kneel in front of the big stuff like refrigerators and pray.'' There's Rockefeller Center, now ''strictly Frankenstein's castle,'' with raw cedar pikes burning in the plaza from dusk to dawn to keep wild animals at bay. Animal passion, meanwhile, is just a flip of a switch away -- if only the electric current would return. Flashlights (powered by compost batteries) are aphrodisiacs; the beauty of real electric light is arousing beyond belief. Bowman writes as if he were being chased by a mob, and his po-mo prose style is perfectly matched to his nihilistic narrative. The problem is, how much is too much? As the absurdities pile higher and higher and the violent death toll rises, this bitter little tale gets harder and harder to swallow. No matter how inventive his language, Bowman and his hyperbolic imagination end up presiding over a strangely pointless exercise in perversion. Maybe it's a case of sophomore slump. Or maybe he just needs to recharge his batteries. - SARAH FERGUSON
In 1997, having little experience with contemporary fiction and not much idea where to start, I found the finalists for Granta’s 20 Best Young American Novelists. Fifty-two writers. It seemed like as good a place as any to find out what was going on in American fiction. So I proceeded to read a book by every writer on the list, which meant I was lucky enough to discover work by writers such as Edwidge Danticat, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Randall Kenan, Joanna Scott, Lorrie Moore, Tony Earley, Ann Patchett, Sherman Alexie and Antonya Nelson. It’s especially interesting to think of that list now that these writers have gone on to win major awards and become best-selling authors. On that same list, there is David Bowman, author of Let the Dog Drive (1994; out of print) and Bunny Modern (1998), whose writing is original and bizarre and stylistically reminiscent of some of our finest writers, and yet I can’t find out anything about him, rarely encounter other readers who have heard of his work.
Let the Dog Drive gives us glimpses of Bowman’s wonderful imagination. The genre-melding novel focuses on a road trip between the narrator, a strange, eighteen-year-old boy named Bud Salem, and a strange, forty-five-year-old housewife, Sylvia Cushman. Bud is running away from his mother, an unhinged televangelist (“My mother told her congregation that the face of an angel named Mupiel had appeared in the window of our dryer one morning.”), and Sylvia is obsessed with Emily Dickinson (“Emily Dickinson was a frail weed. A plain woman. The only beauty among the kangaroos”). It’s impossible to provide a synopsis of the novel without getting dizzy; within the first ten pages of the novel, when Bud discovers Sylvia on the side of the highway, pitching oranges into the desert, we learn that Bud has just shot a man, that his mother “proclaimed that God’s supplement to the Bible — The Third Testament — had been placed in our Mercury’s glove compartment,” and that his father was “killed by a hippopotamus.” So, yes, it gets a little weird. And while there is a kitchen-sink approach to the weirdness that sometimes gets in the way of the narrative, it’s an entertaining read and serves as a primer for the even stranger book that would follow, Bunny Modern.
The jacket copy for the novel calls Bunny Modern “a hard-boiled comedy about love, abduction, and child-care set in a future where electricity has disappeared and fertility is on the wane.” This, strangely enough, does not even begin to accurately describe the book. The main character is a former child star turned private eye who is able to read women’s minds. He is in love with a woman named Claire, a nanny who, because of the low birth rate, is forced to carry a Glock to protect the baby from kidnappers. She snorts lines of Vengeance, a drug that simulates the mother-animal instinct, in order to recover the kidnapped baby by any means necessary. Crazy, crazy shit happens. And it is so much fun to read.
If I had to compare Bowman to other contemporary writers, it’s easy enough to draw connections between the sci-fi/pulp-detective genre mashing of Bunny Modern with Jonathan Lethem’s Gun with Occasional Music, and Bowman’s strange, dystopian future with David Foster Wallace’s Organization of North American Nations in Infinite Jest. And while I don’t think Bunny Modern is as good as the best of Lethem and Wallace, I certainly think it’s close enough that I want more people to read Bowman’s work. There’s something to be said for the strange thrill of having absolutely no idea where you’re going, understanding that the author might not have any idea as well, and not caring.
Since Bunny Modern in 1998, Bowman has yet to publish another novel, though he did write a book about the Talking Heads. A 2007 contributor’s bio for the New York Times Book Review stated that he had “recently completed his third novel, The History of Naked Women.” I’m waiting. - Kevin Wilson
David Bowman, a novelist and cultural critic whose first two books, “Let the Dog Drive” and “Bunny Modern,” received wide praise in the 1990s for their satirical voice, died in Manhattan on Feb. 27. He was 54.
His wife, Chloe Wing, did not announce his death until Tuesday. She said the cause was a cerebral hemorrhage.
Mr. Bowman’s books — which almost never came to be after he was hit by a car in 1989 and suffered a brain injury — achieved a devoted following among readers who love highly allusive literary fiction in which plot, character and landscape are subordinated to the narrator’s absolute freedom of movement. (In “Let the Dog Drive,” characters are killed off and reappear without explanation.) Some of Mr. Bowman’s most avid readers were fellow writers.
The novelist Jonathan Lethem, a friend, called Mr. Bowman “a writer of voice” whose work often evinced “a mordantly urgent investigation into the collapse of some piece of the American dream.”
Mr. Bowman’s work was often compared to the early work of Philip Roth, Raymond Chandler and Henry Miller. But Mr. Lethem said the most fitting comparison was to another short-lived satirist and writer’s favorite, Nathanael West (1903-1940), the author of “Miss Lonelyhearts” and “The Day of the Locust.”“Let the Dog Drive” (1992) is a satirical blend of detective fiction and buddy-movie in which a hyperarticulate 18-year-old narrator hitchhikes across the United States and Mexico with a Detroit housewife who introduces him to Emily Dickinson, hallucinogenic cactuses, the pleasure of standing six inches from speeding trains, and her husband, a safety engineer who conducts crash tests on dogs. The book’s reviewer in The New York Times, Tim Sandlin, called it a highly promising first novel of “unstructured, unrepentant energy.”
“Bunny Modern” (1997), which played on both the detective and science-fiction genres, received mixed reviews. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Sarah Ferguson said its dystopian tale of a near future of no electricity, plummeting fertility and nannies armed with Glock handguns to stave off child abductors put Mr. Bowman’s literary powers in the service of “a strangely pointless exercise in perversion.” The Seattle Times described it as a work by “one of the most assured voices in contemporary American fiction.”
David Anthony Bowman was born on Dec. 8, 1957, in Racine, Wis., one of two children of Daniel and Phylys Bowman. His father was a technical writer.
Mr. Bowman studied music at the Interlochen Arts Academy High School in Interlochen, Mich., where his interest in writing first emerged, his wife said. He briefly attended Putney College in Vermont, since closed, before settling in New York to write while working as a bartender and as a clerk at the Strand bookstore. Ms. Wing, a performing-arts coach who married Mr. Bowman in 1989, said he was a committed autodidact. “He read like a forest fire,” she said.
Besides his wife and his parents, Mr. Bowman is survived by a sister, Danielle.
While working on his third novel, Mr. Bowman published “This Must Be the Place,” the authorized band biography of Talking Heads. At his death he had just completed a novel based on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Mr. Bowman had substantially finished writing his first book in the summer of 1989 when he was struck by a car while walking in Montauk, on Long Island, during a vacation. He was in a coma for a month. When he regained consciousness, he had near-total amnesia, said Dr. Eric Schneider, a longtime friend and professor at Harvard Medical School. He met Mr. Bowman when they were students at Interlochen.
“When David first read his manuscript, he didn’t recognize a word of it,” Dr. Schneider said. “It was as if someone else had written it.”
But during a long recovery, he said, Mr. Bowman reread the unfinished “Let the Dog Drive” many times. As he did, he began recalling details of the long writing process from which it had been born. Then, from the words on the page, he began reconstructing the identity of the writer. He finished the book in 1990.
“I always thought the book was what helped him recover so remarkably,” Dr. Schneider said. “It helped him remember who he was.” -
David Bowman — the writer, not the character in 2001: A Space Odyssey — died on February 27. He was 54. His obituary ran in this past Sunday’s Times. He and I have had an on-and-off correspondence since the fall of 2000. Upon reading his obituary, I realized (guiltily) that I’d failed to answer his last email (from November 2011). It was a brief query, sent without much context. I’m tempted to say that its pithy, unexpected appearance is representative of his work, but I may be oversimplifying. He wrote:
Dear Phil,I’m not sure if he was just curious or whether this was for an article he was writing. I know that my delay in responding stemmed from needing to think about the question: had I come across such a piece? Where would I look to find that information?
Do you have kids?
I write to you to inquire about an experience that many children crave:
Being re-read the same story.
Have you ever come across a writer, esp. a child psychologist, who has explained just ‘why’ a child would want to hear the same story over & over?
yrs. David Bowman, Manhattan
My David Bowman email folder has other queries, most of them similarly brief & thought-provoking. He once said he would send me chapters of a novel-in-progress he was writing. That never came to pass, but he did send me a description of the planned book — a detective novel told by an ex-KGB Russian defector named Simon Odarchenko who now works for Yoko Ono, cataloguing John Lennon’s thousands of hours of studio tapes. And he sent me the table of contents for Why Don’t We Do It in The Road?: Encounters with the Notorious & Renown, a book that (as far as I know) was never published. He also sent occasional verse, and brief observations, such as this one, from a 28 May 2007 email:
A. I am finally reading Proust.That, I think, is more representative of David Bowman: Insight drawn from absurdity. Succinct, strange, and true.
B. Last week a New Yorker named Harvey Weinstein died at age 82. In 1993 Weinstein was kidnapped & kept for 12 days in a “barrel-shaped” pit near the Hudson river. He appears to had a little water & some crackers, but that was it. He had no light.
C. His obituary quotes his son as saying, “Dad said he maintained his composure during those 12 days in the pit by writing what he called the ‘greatest autobiography NEVER written.’ Every day he took a year in his life & recounted it out loud.”
Was Weinstein not the reincarnation of Proust minus the cork-lined walls?
We “met” via email, and apart from one or two phone conversations, always communicated via email. I taught his Bunny Modern (1998), a dystopian satire featuring gun-toting nannies and dwindling fertility rates, in my Fall 2000 “Readings in Contemporary American Novels” class. He came across my syllabus on the web, and sent me an email:
Dear Prof. Nel,I asked him if we might send him some questions. He very graciously supplied detailed answers — he was quite expansive, and the email must have taken him a long while to compose. Also, it was really cool. Here I was, my first semester on the tenure-track, corresponding with a contemporary novelist. Wow!
I am honored to discover that you are including my novel BUNNY MODERN as reading material in one of your English classes. Will students be tested on BUNNY MODERN? Will they have to write papers? If I can do anything to help you present my novel to your students, please let me know.
All the best,
Since I was then a DeLillo scholar, one topic of conversation was DeLillo’s work. Indeed, prior to The Body Artist‘s publication, he sent me bound galleys c/o “the Mystik Brotherhood of Don DeLillo” at my office address. I sent him photocopies of the Uncollected Short Fiction of Don DeLillo (some of which were collected last year in The Angel Esmerelda: Nine Stories, but many of which haven’t been collected).
A couple of years later, when I was writing Dr. Seuss: American Icon, I asked him about Bunny Modern‘s dedication to “Dr. Spock, Dr. Seuss, and Jonathan Lethem, M.D.” because I was (and am) interested in how Seuss circulates in popular culture: When people talk about Seuss, what do they mean? He responded:
As for Dr. Seuss–– I knew that I was going to dedicate the book to Lethem. And I do not know anything about children, so I was referring to baby books––including Dr. Spock. Lethem and I took drugs one night and decided that everything we saw was going to be from Dr. Seuss. Later on, I just thought about the “Dr.” bit––Dr. Spock and Dr. Seuss. Then I decided to dedicate the book to Dr. Spock, Dr. Seuss and Jonathan Lethem MD.In the book, I connected his response to the tendency to associate Seuss with mind-altering drugs, and then to Seuss’s own many jokes about same (mostly booze, for Seuss).
David Bowman was an original, a unique voice in American letters. In the Times‘ obituary, Jonathan Lethem wisely cites Nathanael West as Bowman’s closest literary kin. That’s an apt comparison: both have a fondness for odd juxtapositions and surreal imagery. I’m sure West influenced Bowman, but what’s striking is how he absorbed and transformed so many very different influences: West, Richard Brautigan, Emily Dickinson, Dashiell Hammett. That such different people could have such a deep influence on one creative mind is key to what made Bowman’s work so compelling and unusual.
Is that unusualness, then, why the third Bowman novel has yet to arrive? After Let the Dog Drive (1992) and Bunny Modern (1998), he published a non-fiction title: This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of Talking Heads in the Twentieth Century (2001). The British title, his preferred title, is even better: Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa: The Adventures of Talking Heads in the Twentieth Century. (His U.S. publisher scotched that idea, fearing it was too absurdist, and thus un-marketable.) He did a lot of journalism, publishing pieces in Salon, the New York Times, the Village Voice, and elsewhere. But no other books appeared. Were his book-length works too absurdist for mainstream publishing? Will they published posthumously? Also, will there be an archive of his papers? I’d be glad to donate our email correspondence. (To whom should one pose these questions?)
To conclude, a brief response to Mr. Bowman’s last email to me.
Dear David,- Philip Nel http://www.philnel.com/2012/05/08/david-bowman/
Apologies for the delay in my reply. Busy-ness has made me a delinquent correspondent. I’m sorry about that. I’m especially sorry that this reply is so late that I’m sending it when you yourself are “late” — though I expect you’d appreciate the irony.
To answer your question: no, I do not have children. I think child psychology is a place to seek the answer to your query. I also think that childhood studies might be a route to pursue. Is this question for an article or book you’re writing? I’d be glad, on your behalf, to make some queries to friends who work in childhood studies. Just say the word!
Finally, thanks for our epistolary acquaintance. Your emails arrived in my inbox as welcome bursts of surreality and insight. I’m tempted to ask you whether (as David Byrne sings) the band in Heaven is playing your favorite song, playing it once again, playing it all night long. But, then, if Byrne is right: “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” I’ve never been sure quite what that line means — Heaven as solitude, Heaven as imaginary, or Heaven as boring. Any hints?
Thanks & godspeed,