Bowman certainly put a lot of energy into casting “Big Bang,” which you may find overpopulated even if you like crowds. The novel’s central nervous system is formed around American politics — it ends as well as begins with Kennedy’s death, and spends considerable time on the Vietnam War, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Watergate. But J.F.K., Jacqueline Kennedy, Aristotle Onassis, Richard Nixon and Ngo Dinh Diem are joined in this story by — among others — Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Lee, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Dr. Benjamin Spock and his wife, Jane, George Plimpton, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe, the literary critic Leslie Fiedler, J. D. Salinger, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning, Elizabeth Taylor, Raymond Chandler, Sylvia Plath, Jack Kerouac, Frank Sinatra and Maria Callas.
The events recounted in “Big Bang” include, but are far from limited to: Mailer stabbing his wife, Burroughs shooting his wife, Rosemary Kennedy’s lobotomy, Khrushchev at Disneyland, the director John Huston making “The Misfits,” Fidel Castro’s appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Nixon playing the piano on “The Jack Paar Show,” the release of the Ford Edsel, Montgomery Clift nearly dying in a car wreck after leaving a dinner party in the Hollywood Hills and, for about the blink of an eye, a young George W. Bush in the car with his mother, Barbara, after she has suffered a miscarriage.
If this review is beginning to seem encyclopedic in nature, it is simply mirroring the book. “Big Bang” resembles a baby boomer clearing house. Set between 1950 and 1963, there are moments when it seems intended to be a real-time account of the entire period.
This creates a paradoxical sensation in the reading experience. Individual pages and the brief scenes zoom by; but somewhere around halfway through, this nearly 600-page book begins to feel endless. Bowman gets approximately 250 plates spinning in the air, and they mostly just keep spinning.
We’re shown a metric ton or two in this book, but almost all of it passes by as if on a screen. There is a consistently straightforward description of things, as in this example: “Ruth moves in with Pollock. They go to Long Island highbrow art parties and all the women cluster around Pollock. Ruth is ignored. She is a few extra pounds heavy. She has dark ratty hair.”