Overlooked writers: Kevin Wilson on David Bowman

Reading Theodora Keogh last year, I was amazed not so much that I’d never heard of her, but that it seemed almost no one had either. More recently, Blake Bailey’s comprehensive biography of John Cheever underscored for me just how many writers, acclaimed in one decade, end up forgotten.

Below Kevin Wilson, author of Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, offers an appreciation of novelist David Bowman.
 

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.


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