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David Bowman, satirist of free-form novels

DAVID BOWMAN

NEW YORK - 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 Feb. 27. He was 54.

His wife, Chloe Wing, did not announce his death until Tuesday. She said the cause was a cerebral hemorrhage.

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Mr. Bowman’s books almost never came to be; he was hit by a car in 1989 and suffered a brain injury. But the books 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.’’

His work was often compared to the early work of Philip Roth, Raymond Chandler, and Henry Miller. But 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 6 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 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.

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 leaves a sister, Danielle.

While working on his third novel, Mr. Bowman published “This Must Be the Place,’’ the authorized band biography of the Talking Heads. At his death, he had just completed a novel based on the assassination of President Kennedy.

Mr. Bowman had substantially finished writing his first book in summer 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 a 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,’’ 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,’’ Schneider said. “It helped him remember who he was.’’

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