In the new novel Big Bang (out this week in paperback from Little, Brown), author David Bowman peeks into the real-life history of America in the 1950s, cheerfully intermingling real events and figures with imaginary intersections, crafting an inquisitive and informative examination of the new, postwar normal.
We're pleased to present an excerpt from this exciting new work.
FROM "CHAPTER ONE: THE AMERICAN EMBASSY, MEXICO CITY, 1950":
Go back to 1950, thirteen years prior to Kennedy’s gundown in Dallas. Three young male American expatriates are living in Mexico City.
The word young is used with its 1950s implication. This is and was a decade when even men in their late thirties were considered young.
One of the men is thirty-two. On his deathbed many years after November 22, 1963, he will claim that he was part of the conspiracy to murder President Kennedy. In 1950, this man brought his wife and their three-year-old daughter to this 5.2-square-mile capital built by the Aztecs in 1325. The Aztecs named it Tenochtitlán. The city had once been a Venice-like metropolis crisscrossed with canals as well as pyramids where the hearts of prisoners were ripped out from their chests. The Aztecs had faith this bloodletting kept the sun arcing across the sky.
This book’s eldest expatriate is thirty-six. He brought his common-law wife, his son, and his stepdaughter with him to Mexico City.
The youngest expatriate is twenty-seven. He brought only his wife, as they had no children. Each of these American men is unknown in 1950. The eldest will become a notorious modernist writer, his reputation greater than the number of actual readers who opened his books. The man whose age was in the middle will commit numerous political crimes, but will only be charged with a specific burglary that will force the resignation of an American president. The youngest of the three will become the enemy of this decade’s relentless fecundity, this Baby Big Bang—year after year in the 1950s nearly four million newborns pop up in suburban hospitals situated discreetly on the peripheries of clusters of cookie-cutter fake-colonial snout houses where each parent keeps a well-thumbed copy of Dr. Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care beside the bed.
This trio’s brief Mexican exile is a poignant lens to use to view the U.S.A. from.
* * *
The youngest expatriate is Carl Djerassi—pronounced Ger-AH-see. Djerassi looks a bitlike a Semitic Desi Arnaz. Djerassi arrives in Mexico City around Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Djerassi was born in Vienna when Sigmund Freud had still been alive. When he was sixteen, Carl’s parents sent him to New York City to escape Hitler’s imminent Blitzkrieg. Djerassi would attend college in Missouri and Ohio, finally earning a PhD from the University of Wisconsin. This man, who will exhibit a lifelong dedication to women and sex, and sex and women, was a carnal numbskull in college. He knew that possession of an automobile was the only way his generation could enjoy sex or a reasonably close facsimile, yet Djerassi never learned to drive. In fact, in Ohio, he took cello lessons instead of driving classes. At the start of the war, Djerassi was both a virgin and 4-F. He transcends that first affliction in 1943—his wedding night spent with his bride, Virginia, in a Pullman compartment clacking through the dark toward an Atlantic shore honeymoon.
Professionally, Djerassi would become a steroid man. ‘Steroids are solid alcohols that occur widely in plants and animals,’ he’d explain. ‘The best- known steroid is cholesterol.’ If you didn’t stop him, Djerassi would tell how all steroids (and all sterols) are based on a chemical skeleton that consists of carbon and hydrogen atoms arranged in four fused rings, generically known as ‘perhydrocyclopentanophenanthrene’—Djerassi always enunciating that boa constrictor word with smug fluidity.
Djerassi’s first job was working in New Jersey for a Swiss chemical company called CIBA. They held a patent for cholesterol, a steroid that was considered a good thing back then as cholesterol was a thinking man or woman’s steroid—10 percent of the brain is composed of cholesterol. Djerassi was part of the team that invented a powerful antihistamine for CIBA called pribenzamine. A chemical triumph. Djerassi was hot. He was recruited by a Mexico City pharmaceutical company called Syntex (from Synthesis and Mexico), led by Budapest-born chemist George Rosenkranz, who found himself exiled in Mexico after the war.
Djerassi’s New Jersey colleagues think he is crazy moving down to Mexico. Djerassi defends his decision: ‘Everyone assumes that serious chemistry stops at the Rio Grande. It doesn’t. I’m gambling that being in the backwater I can establish a scientific reputation.’ Then he speaks Latin, ‘Quod licet Iovinon licet bovi’ and translates, ‘What is allowed to God is not permitted to an ox.’
No one in New Jersey ever asks him what this means. Additionally, no one in New Jersey ever asks what his wife, Virginia, thinks about this Mexican relocation.
* * *
The gringo of the middle comparative age of thirty-two is an American spy named Howard Hunt. He is the head of the CIA office stationed in Mexico City. This town serves as the espionage portal to all of Central America. Spies are as numerous as drunks sleeping it off in city doorways and gutters.
Hunt works out of Uncle Sugar’s embassy in Mexico City. (Uncle Sugar = Uncle Sam = U.S.A.) It is a nondescript Latin moderne eighteen- story office building on the Reforma.
Hunt is a spy who could look good posing for a photo wearing an ascot. In the 3-D of real life, Hunt’s face has more than a few Bob Hope angles. This is the differencebetween a handsome man and a comedian. In addition, Hunt’s complexion is permanently pale as if he were some eternal Norwegian. Hunt even spent time in Hollywood and never tanned. In Mexico, he has remained relentlessly white. Hunt is a gringo’s gringo.
Often, his cover name is ‘Mr. White.’
Hunt’s spycraft is not assassination or molehood. He is an expert in Black Propaganda—forging reports or counterfeiting documents—stating something untrue, then planting fake spots in radio news or newspapers. Misinformation has always been as powerful as revealed secrets.
Hunt’s thirty-year-old wife, Dorothy, is also a spy. She was born Dorothy Wetzel in Ohio on an April Fools’ Day. After the Second World War, she worked for the OSS (progenitor of the CIA). She was adept at tracking down Nazi money and artwork for nineteenth-century-born William Averell Harriman. This man was the same Yale Bonesman Harriman who along with his cohort Prescott Bush had invested money for and with the Nazis in Berlin until FDR made such activities illegal. Dot’s travels for Harriman took her to Calcutta and New Delhi. She suffered a brief marriage to an alcoholic French count. She ended up stationed in Shanghai. There, she met E. Howard Hunt, also of the OSS.
Excerpted from the book "Big Bang" by David Bowman. Copyright © 2019 by David Bowman. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.