Smoking Dope with Thomas Pynchon

Revision as of 00:07, 14 December 2006 by WikiAdmin (Talk | contribs)

A Sixties Memoir

by Andrew Gordon

Andrew Gordon, PhD
[This article appeared in The Vineland Papers: Critical Takes on Pynchon's Novel [1]]

This is a story about the sixties: it's about me and some friends of mine, it's about Berkeley, and it's about Pynchon. It's about a decade in which we were all young together and thought we would stay young forever. Berkeley was our Vineland, a dream of a perfect new world. The time was ripe, America was ours, and we were going to change the world: Paradise Now or Apocalypse Now.

Neither one happened. As the decades pass, is anything left of that refuge, that Vineland, apart from memory and isolated dreams? Where are the sixties now? Where are we? And where is Thomas Pynchon?

We are stardust, we are golden,
We are billion-year-old carbon,
And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden.
(Joni Mitchell, "Woodstock")[2]

Ultimately, I suppose this story is all about me. Everything you write always is, disguise it as you may. I don't know what I can tell you about Thomas Pynchon, but I can tell you something about myself, about the impact that the sixties and Berkeley and Pynchon had on me. Vineland [3] looks back on the late sixties, and I'm going to look back on 1964-67, from ages 19 to 22, when I was first going out into the world on my own and when my life became enmeshed with the fictions of Thomas Pynchon. I want to trace some of the parallels between life and fiction.

According to his friend Jules Siegel, when Pynchon lived in Mexico in the sixties, "The Mexicans laughed at his mustache and called him Pancho Villa." There's a hoary old joke whose punchline goes, "Did I know Pancho Villa? Hombre, we had lunch together!" Mine goes, "Did I know Thomas Pynchon? Man, we smoked dope together!" [4] Except it's no joke; it really happened.

I often feel that way about the nineteen sixties in America: they were no joke, they really happened to us, and they happened to me, although in retrospect they boggle the imagination and seem too incredible to be real. The truth of the sixties is stranger than fiction. As Philip Roth wrote about the period, "is it possible? is it happening?" ("Writing American Fiction" 121) [5]. That's why the sixties have so rarely been captured well in American fiction, except by a few authors such as Pynchon: if somebody told you the history of the decade as a story, you wouldn't believe it. You'd wonder: Is this for real? Is this some kind of joke? Is it supposed to be farce or tragedy? You wouldn't know how to feel, to laugh or to cry.

And although I met Thomas Pynchon one evening in Berkeley in June of 1967, I cannot say I really know him. He remains for me a figure as mysterious and ungraspable as Pancho Villa, a dope-smoking guerilla warrior of the imagination, disappearing into his Mexican desert.

Part I: Entropy

I consider Pynchon a quintessential American novelist of the nineteen sixties because he came of age as an artist during that entropic decade and shows its stamp in all his work: V. [6] (1963) covers the century from 1898 to 1956, but most of it was composed during the Kennedy years, and its zany mood reflects the liberatory burst of energy of the Thousand Days, that peculiar mix of Camelot idealism and Cold War paranoia also found in Heller's Catch-22 (1961) and Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962). The Crying of Lot 49 [7] (1966) is set in the relatively innocent sixties of the early Beatles (when they were still the Adorable Moptops and the Fab Four) and of legal LSD. Nevertheless, all the attraction, danger, and destructive tendencies of the New Left and the counterculture are prophesied in the insidious underground web of the Trystero. Gravity's Rainbow (1973), ostensibly about World War II, was written during the Vietnam War and indirectly reflects that topsy turvy time; Pynchon also sneaks in references to Malcolm X, Kennedy, and Nixon. Slothrop in Gravity's Rainbow discovers what many young Americans found out in the late sixties: that our Magical Mystery Tour in the Zone of Vietnam was a love affair with death, that the war never ends, and that your own country is your enemy. We weren't in Kansas anymore, the Wicked Witch of the West was after us, but there was no Yellow Brick Road and no kindly Wizard to come to the rescue. Finally, Vineland (1990) is the sixties revisited from the perspective of the eighties, about all the unresolved issues, about our sympathy for the Devil and our betrayal of the revolution, and about the long arm of the Nixonian counterrevolution continuing under Reagan. And whether or not his four novels are set in the sixties, they are ultimately all of the sixties, and always conjure up the contradictory moods of that decade and evoke the peculiarly mixed response.

Part II: The Adventures of a Schlemihl and Human Yo-yo

I was introduced to Pynchon's fiction in the fall of 1964 at Rutgers by Richard Poirier: V. was the last novel assigned that semester in his course on the twentieth-century American novel. I immediately glommed on to Pynchon the way I had to Kerouac in the late 50s. He had an epic, wild, wide-ranging imagination. He was hip, he was funny, alternately farcical and profound. He also had modernist traits: he was learned, dense and allusive, and he liked to write about wastelands (even in the early sixties, in many English Departments T.S. Eliot was still God). That Pynchon was camera shy added to the mystique: he actually lived by the Joycean ethic of "silence, exile, and cunning"!

Unlike Kerouac, Pynchon appealed to two sides of me: the adolescent and the cerebral — the anarchist and the intellectual. Nevertheless, I connected Pynchon to Kerouac because both wrote about restless post-WW II young Americans. Except that Kerouac's heroes were filled with romantic angst and an unfulfilled yearning to burn like roman candles, whereas Pynchon's were clowns, schlemihls and human yo-yos, bouncing between farce and paranoia. Kerouac was of the cool fifties; he wrote jazz fiction. But Pynchon was of the apocalyptic sixties; he wrote rock and roll.

Fall 1964 was my last semester at Rutgers. I had enough credits to graduate, and had already been accepted to study English at Berkeley the next fall. I was a New York City boy, but the East couldn't hold me anymore; for years, I had been California dreaming. All I'd ever known of life was school. The summer after high school I had retraced part of Kerouac's route in On the Road; now I was ready to live like a Pynchon hero, to start bouncing around the globe like a human yo-yo. Restless and terrifically naive — in other words, a perfect schlemihl — I boarded a boat for Europe in February 1965, just after my twentieth birthday, ostensibly to learn French in Paris but mostly, as it turned out, to bum around. A last fling before graduate school. Fiction imitates life, but life also imitates fiction, in an endless feedback loop: I soon found myself yoyoing in a Pynchonesque narrative involving historical change, illegal substances, FBI agents, farce, and paranoia.

I stayed at a dirtcheap fleabag on the Left bank with the pretentious name of "Grand Hotel du Midi." I learned about squat toilets on the stairwell; instead of toilet paper, last year's Paris telephone directory hung on a hook. But I was young and in Paris, where even the cockroaches spoke French. I fancied that Rimbaud had once checked into the "Grand Hotel" to shoot up.

There I met a newlywed couple, Berkeley students, the first I had ever known, veterans of the Fall 1964 FSM (Free Speech Movement), the first big battle of the campus wars of the sixties. I'm going to change some names here, so let's call them Peter and Wendy. They gave me the first dope I had ever smoked; in 1965, your first drug turn-on meant losing your cultural virginity. Peter was tall and dashing, Wendy a petite California blonde. They were the advance guard of the armies of the night, the new hippie freaks with the unisex look: both had shoulder-length hair and dressed in cowboy boots, patched jeans, and velour jackets. They had been living together on Shattuck Avenue (also known as Shackup) until Wendy left to join her father, an American General stationed in Paris. Peter followed. I could picture the scene at the front door when the hippie met the General and told him he had come for his daughter. They were married in the American church in Paris. (Two years later, Peter lost Wendy to the lure of methedrine and the Haight-Ashbury.)

I got swept up in a student demonstration on the Rue des Ecoles; I didn't even know what it was about. Les flics advanced, swinging their clubs to disperse the crowd. I waved my passport above my head like a flag — "americain, americain!" — as if that would grant me diplomatic immunity. It was a foretaste of Berkeley and of Paris 1968.

In the Paris Metro that winter of 1965, my friend Keith and I picked up a beautiful young woman who turned out to be Valerie Percy, daughter of the Illinois senator. In 1966, in the bedroom of her Chicago home, Valerie was murdered.

One morning in the fall of 1966, there was an insistent ringing on the phone in my Berkeley apartment. I was living in a dingy, dope-filled pad with two roommates, the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. I rarely answered the phone then because our landlord was trying to evict us for keeping cats and we were trying to last out the semester. But after fifteen rings I thought maybe this wasn't the landlord, maybe this was important, so I picked it up.

The caller asked for "Mister Gordon," so I knew it was no friend; he said his name was Farquhar. I'd never met anyone by that peculiar name, but I knew of a Restoration dramatist named Farquhar, so I suspected it was a fellow graduate student named Paul playing a joke on me. To string him along, I said that was quite an unusual name and asked how he spelled it. "F-A-R-Q-U-H-A-R," he said patiently. I told him Mr. Gordon wasn't in, but could he state the nature of his business? He said he was with the local FBI.

I hung up, congratulating myself on outsmarting Paul.

But then I began to sweat: suppose this call was for real? Could I be arrested for lying to the FBI? I'd said I wasn't at home, but I'd spoken in my normal voice! I panicked for several minutes. Then I called the number he had given me: "Is Mr. Farquhar there?" I asked in a high, squeaky pitch.

They wanted to question me about Valerie Percy. Keith was a suspect because he had been dating her, and they needed to corroborate his story.

So two agents showed up at my door bright and early the next morning, looking like Hoover vacuum cleaner salesman. Yes, they really did have close-cropped hair and wear those plain black suits with narrow ties and shiny shoes; they were as straight as missionaries. (My roommate Danny, who had been up all night dropping acid, freaked out when he answered the door: "Andy, it's the Feds!" All during the interview, I could hear the toilet flush as he frantically disposed of his stash.)

For the sake of privacy, I led the two FBI into my bedroom, which was furnished in graduate student minimalism — board and cement-block bookcases and a mattress on the floor. They stood stiffly while I sat on the mattress. My answers simply confirmed what they already knew. Later, I heard rumors that Valerie had been killed by drug dealers, or that she had been killed by someone who mistook her for her twin sister. The murder went unsolved.

In March of 1965, I was sleeping in a Land Rover with American plates, parked on the streets of Bordeaux. I woke up in the morning to find the car freshly plastered all over with posters, courtesy of the French Communist party: U.S. OUT OF VIETNAM. I hadn't read a newspaper in months; I remember asking someone, "Where is Vietnam?"

In a student lounge at the University of Bordeaux, I watched a televised speech by Charles de Gaulle. Most of the French students left when Le Grand Charles came on; the rest listened and laughed uncontrollably.

Because we had picked up so many passengers along the way, a young woman and I rode into Madrid on the roof of the Land Rover, waving to passersby. It felt like a triumphal procession. In Madrid, we met some fellow Americans with no visible means of support who explained they worked as extras for MGM's Spanish studio. We got our pictures taken by a photographer in the Retiro Park, waited several hours till he could develop them, and then drove out to MGM. They said our beards would have been great for Dr. Zhivago (1965); unfortunately, that picture had just finished filming. If we hung around a few months, we could be soldiers in The Battle of the Bulge (1965). We'd have to shave, though. We left town. Maybe our scruffy mug shots are still on file somewhere in Madrid MGM. Whenever I watch Omar Sharif trudging through the frozen wastes to get back to Julie Christie, I wonder about the career I missed: I could have been one in the mob of starving peasants trampled by mounted Cossacks!

In Morocco, we slept in the car, on the beach, or in the fields. It seemed a friendly country: in a restaurant, a stranger passed us a clay pipe called a chillum and gestured that we should take a puff. We asked what it was. "Kif." I had to have that explained to me too.

I was being wrung out by a savage episode of the traveler's trots. Waking at three a.m. in Tangiers, the only place I could find to relieve myself was a barrel in a dark alleyway.

A lineup of little kids would trail us through the Casbah, hands out, chanting the only words of English they seemed to know: "Money, hipi? Hipi, money?" Finally we hired as guide a twelve-year-old street kid named Victor who apparently spoke six languages. He said he could get us anything we wanted: Hashish? Heroin? His sister? Mostly we wanted protection. By now, Victor must be Mayor of Tangiers.

On the deck of the boat returning to Algeciras, we threw all our dope overboard.

In Lisbon in April 1965, I saw A Hard Day's Night with Portuguese subtitles; some wag had translated the title into Cuatro Cavaleiros do Aposcalypso, meaning either "Four Guys After Calypso" or "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse."

I learned to faire l'auto-stop and picked up some hitchhiker's French. My low point came during a night in May spent in a fish truck in Calais after I missed the last ferry; for a week, I stunk like old mackerel.

By June of 1965, I was broke and lonesome and took the Cunard line home from England; I got back just in time to graduate with my class. Despite my insistent letters and packages of French perfume, my girflfriend of the fall had moved on to another guy.

I returned to a different country than the one I had left four months earlier. The first teach-in on the War had been held at Rutgers that spring. The number-one tune was no longer the Beatles' sweet chant, "I Want to Hold Your Hand"; now people were listening instead to the angry, insistent lament of the Rolling Stones, "I Can't Get No Satisfaction." A chemistry major told me about his experiences with a new wonder drug called LSD. He said he had found nirvana and met God. I thought, if it could do that for this schnook, then what could it do for me? I ingested 250 micrograms and wound up in the hospital.

Part III: In Which Oedipa Meets The Shadow

I didn't realize at the time that I had fallen into a Pynchon novel and that the author was about to appear on the scene.

In the fall of 1966 I was writing a seminar paper on V. for a graduate course taught by Sheldon Sacks. Sacks was a sweet man and an inspiring teacher, a formalist and neo-Aristotelian of the Chicago school of R. S. Crane; out of place at Berkeley, he soon returned to the University of Chicago, where he edited Critical Inquiry and died much too young. Sacks and Frederick Crews — then in his Freudian phase — were my most influential teachers at Berkeley in the late 60s.

Briefly, I argued that V. was organized not so much like a novel as like a moral fable or apologue, and that its message read, "Keep cool but care." Anyway, that's what I believed then; I was a lot more certain about many things in the late 60s than I am now. Maybe that's the message I read because that's the way I was trying to live: cool but caring, a Berkeley hipster.

But I found V. so dense that it took my entire paper just to begin to explicate the first chapter. I never went further: I was overawed by Pynchon`s complex and daring imagination and intimidated by his learning. Nevertheless, I lived with that novel for a time. And, in a curious way, the novel led me to Pynchon when I wasn't even trying to find him.

I used to carry around a dogeared paperback of V. (I have it still, scotch-taped together. How could I give it up? It has all my notes!). I turned friends on to Pynchon; we became cognoscenti, sharing favorite lines of dialogue: "Oh, man,. . . an intellectual. I had to pick an intellectual. They all revert" (111) or "You're turning our marriage into a trampoline act" (113). Later we would similarly appropriate The Crying of Lot 49, sending each other letters with the stamps pasted upside down and pencilling on the envelopes "W.A.S.T.E." Once again, fiction was infiltrating life.

One friend, a woman graduate student, noticed me carrying V. and said, "Oh, are you reading that? I know the guy who wrote it." I was naturally skeptical about her claim and asked if this mysterious Pynchon really existed and if he was a man or a committee.

She said she had met him in Berkeley in 1965 and that they stayed in touch. She asked if I minded if she sent Pynchon my paper. I gave her a copy, suspecting that it would vanish into a black hole.

Several months later, she mentioned that "Tom" had read my paper and liked it, thought it a lot more perceptive than the reviewers' comments. I thanked her but still wondered what kind of game she was playing.

From time to time, she dropped convincing sounding details about Pynchon. She said he picked his friends carefully and that they guarded his privacy. She said he had written a second novel in haste and for money and that he was not too proud of it; that would be the just-published The Crying of Lot 49. She claimed he had people help him with research and that he was working on an endless novel in which all of his friends would appear, including her. Is Gravity's Rainbow a roman a clef? If there is ever a biography of Pynchon, someone should investigate that angle. I once combed through Gravity, searching for the character who is supposed to be her; there are just too many, and I couldn't be sure.

In fact, she reminded me most of Rachel Owlglass in V: she was a bright, lovely Jewish woman who liked to mother people. I was half in love with her but I was also friends with the guy she was living with. They later married and divorced; she claims he's in Gravity's Rainbow too.

One sunny afternoon in May 1967, I was sitting at an outdoor table of the Terrace, a cafeteria overlooking Sproul Plaza. At Berkeley, I got my political education on the streets or among the Terrace Rats — New Leftists who cut classes to table hop all afternoon, indulging in heavy conversation and strategy sessions. That day, we were awaiting a speech by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who was beginning to speak out against the Vietnam War. Dean, a fellow teaching assistant in English, announced to the entire table that he had been taking acid nonstop for a week, that he had fallen in love while tripping, and that he was dropping out and going to Mexico. No one batted an eye or tried to change his mind; I remember envying his nerve. This was happening all the time; people were dropping like flies, and every semester you had to renew your vows to stay in school. Dean had already given away all his books. "Who wants my watch?" he asked, melodramatically stripping it off. "I`ve passed beyond time." I said I'd take it; I already had a watch, but I figured I could hock his. A lovely woman I'd never met sat down at the table and asked me why I was wearing two watches. Several years later, we got married.

As for Dean, the next day he had sobered up and wanted his watch back; I returned it. He went to Mexico and returned a few months later sans girlfriend. Last I heard, he became a computer programmer for IBM.

One night in early June of 1967, my Pynchon connection phoned me at my apartment on Shattuck Avenue. Pynchon was in town, staying with her and her boyfriend. He'd been living in L.A., flown up to Seattle to visit friends from Boeing, and on his way back to L.A. had stopped off for a day in Berkeley. She said, "Tom wants to meet you."

This was like a command audience with the Pope. I kick-started my motorcycle and, I think, made it across town to her place near San Pablo Avenue before she had time to put down the phone.

Many years later, I ran into her at a literature conference and she revealed some unexpected details about herself and Pynchon. They weren't just friends; they had been lovers and lived together in Berkeley for a while in 1965. She described him as being then a "prematurely middleaged" young man with "a lot of hang-ups." She claimed she was the first to turn him on to dope. They broke up because of the "hang-ups," but they remained friends and corresponded. From time to time, he would reappear suddenly and unexpectedly in her life — the last time at her wedding, with a wedding present of a kilo of Michoacan (a superior brand of Mexican killer weed).

That night in June of 1967 she made it clear on the phone that I was not to ask Pynchon about his work: past, present, or future. Just what did that leave me to talk about with him, I wondered as I drove across town, burning with anticipation. Yet I still had the nagging feeling that, like Oedipa Maas, I might be the victim of an elaborate hoax, that there would be no Pynchon at her apartment, just an imposter — or perhaps a locked door with a mail slot marked with the sign of a muted posthorn.

Part IV: A Screaming Comes Across the Sky

She had a tiny, one-bedroom house, living room separated from bedroom by a bead curtain. As I entered, the room was flooded with a pungent aroma and enough smoke to induce an immediate contact high; I coughed. A long, lanky young man was methodically rolling joints on the table; his stash box was a One-a-Day Brand Multivitamin pill bottle. He carefully finished rolling and extended the bomber to me, saying, "Hey, man, would you like a joint?" (This was Berkeley 1967; people really talked that way back then.) I took a toke gladly; it was obvious by the fog in the room that they were way ahead of me.

This man, who was introduced to me as Thomas Pynchon, appeared to be in his late twenties. I'm six foot one, but he was taller than me, about six two or three. He wore a corduroy shirt and corduroy pants, both green, and a pair of those brown, ankle-high suede shoes known as desert boots. He was lean, almost emaciated, and his eyes were wasted. His hair was thick and brown and he had a ragged, reddish-brown soupstrainer mustache; I wondered if he had grown it to hide his teeth, which were crooked and slightly protruding.

Pynchon was evidently a man of few words. I wanted very much to talk with him, to sound him out, at least to get him to laugh, but as we sat on the floor and passed around buzz bombers and grew progressively more zonked, he didn't say much, just listened intently as our hostess and host and I talked. The conversation was disjointed, grass talk consisting of little bits and revelations (Leslie Fiedler had just been busted for possession of marijuana) and silly stoned jokes, like the one about the woman who traded in her menstrual cycle for a Yamaha. I thought of Pynchon as a Van der Graaf machine, one of those generators that keeps building static electricity until a lightning bolt zaps between the terminals.

All of a sudden, he pulled out of his pocket a string of firecrackers and asked, "Where can we set these off?"

"Why don't we blow up the statue of Queen Victoria?" I replied.

"O wow, man, have you read that book?" Pynchon said. He'd caught my allusion to Leonard Cohen's novel, Beautiful Losers, recently released in paperback. Cohen's hero actually does blow up a statue of Victoria, a typically sixties symbolic gesture. I was pleased to finally get a response from Pynchon, yet I still felt like the overeager grad student trying too hard to impress the Prof.

There were no Victorian monuments to explode in Berkeley, so we drove instead to the Marina and set off the fireworks by the Bay. We walked by the water, past junkpiles, setting off cherry bombs and running like hell. A midnight ritual: four heavily stoned people hearing the snap, crackle, and pop, watching the dazzle against the black mud and the midnight waters. At that moment, halfway around the world in Vietnam, equally stoned soldiers were probably admiring in the same way the rocket's red glare.

Suddenly, for some inexplicable reason, everyone had the hungry munchies and I suggested an all-night burger palace on University Avenue, probably the only restaurant open at that hour. It was a huge fluorescent Burgertown. As we sat at formica-topped tables and ate greasy sleazeburgers, Pynchon slouched in the booth, long thin legs in green Levi's sprawled out, pensively biting his nails. Then he ripped a styrofoam coffee cup into tiny, meticulous shreds. He had dissipated, tired eyes like Robert Mitchum's.

The place featured a colorful old baroque Wurlitzer jukebox. We fed the machine streams of quarters: the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields" and Country Joe's "Sweet Lorraine." Pynchon chose Procul Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale" and the Stones' "Ruby Tuesday," which remain for me associated with that night.

In Vineland, after D.L. rescues Frenesi from the Berkeley streetfighting, They sat devouring cheeseburgers, fries, and shakes in a waterfront place full of refugees from the fighting up the hill, all their eyes, including ones that had wept, now lighted from the inside — was it only the overhead fluorescents, some trick of sun and water outside? no . . . too many of these fevered lamps not to have origin across the line somewhere, in a world sprung new, not even defined yet, worth the loss of nearly everything in this one. The jukebox played the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish. . . . Revolution all around them, world-class burgers, jukebox solidarity. . . .(117).

D.L. and Frenesi's "jukebox solidarity" doesn't last. And that night in 1967 I made the mistake of introducing Pynchon to an acquaintance of mine who happened to be in the restaurant, the manager of a local rock band; they became engrossed in a technical conversation about music, and I was lost.

The last thing I recall is sitting with Pynchon in the open back of a red pickup truck, freezing, as we rocketed up into the Berkeley hills. The fog slid in like satin, so thick the water dripped on me. Suddenly, out of a cloud, San Francisco materialized below us. It was dawn.

Later that morning Pynchon caught a plane back to L.A. I never saw him again.

Part V: Conclusion: Slow Learner

That was twenty-five years ago. Since then, I've met over a dozen novelists of varying degrees of fame. The experience is almost invariably disappointing. You think you know them, but you don't; you only know their works. And they don't know you from Adam, so the conversations are usually the desultory ones of strangers with little in common. Nevertheless, my frustrating encounter with Pynchon continues to haunt my imagination because of the special circumstances: he's the only writer I didn't have to seek out, the only one who ever asked to meet me. Perhaps because I was a young student and a friend of a friend, he felt safe. We shared a joint, which creates a bond of sorts; in the sixties, it was a holy ritual, a passing of the peace pipe, one of the generational rites of passage. But now that I'm a certified professor, there is a permanent wall between us. Those times are gone forever.

So what can I say of Thomas Pynchon, except that we once smoked dope together? Does a writer's personality really matter, or only the authorial personality that we read in his works? A science-fiction novelist once told me, "Most science-fiction writers are nerds." He was correct: you meet a novelist whose imagination has sent you to Andromeda, and he dresses like an accountant.

Pynchon is no nerd, but the relative banality of his conversation that evening ("Hey man, would you like a joint?") and his reticence made it hard to get a focus on the man behind the books. But that's not surprising: Pynchon interposes his fictions between himself and the world. His novels are an elaborate screen he can hide behind, a form of both self-expression and self-effacement. The woman who brought us together once offered to arrange for Pynchon to speak in a university auditorium. She told him she could assure his anonymity by having him speak through a microphone from behind a screen. He refused: "They would still be able to recognize my voice." Ironically, that is exactly the situation of Pynchon's readers: he speaks to us from behind a screen, but we recognize him by his voice, that unmistakable Pynchon style.

Nevertheless, from my brief encounter with Pynchon I gleaned a few things about the man behind the screen. I know that he follows the reviews and evidently cares what critics say about him. That he probably has help with his research. That he usually works slowly and disparages Lot 49 — wrongly, I believe — because he wrote hastily. That he's shy, doesn't talk much, and doesn't open up to strangers. That he's intense and has lots of nervous energy — the nail biting and cup shredding. That he picks his friends carefully to guard himself: no wonder trust and betrayal are central themes in Vineland. That he writes his friends into his fiction. That, at least during the late sixties, he was a heavy doper — thus his sympathy with an aging, beleagured head like Zoyd Wheeler. That he's generous, shares his stash and doesn't bogart his joints. That, like Benny Profane in V., he is "given to sentimental impulses" (1): he writes love letters, stays friends with a former lover, and shows up at her wedding. That, despite his reserved, introverted manner, he seems to care deeply: keep cool but care. That he reads a lot, including novels by his contemporaries. That he loves rock music, which is all over Vineland. That he's got a zany streak: the sense of play in his fiction is part of his life — he likes to set off firecrackers in the middle of the night. Does that explain the fascination with rockets in Gravity's Rainbow? Probably not, but it's nice to think of his fiction as a string of exploding firecrackers.

Most of all, I learned that the sixties profoundly affected Pynchon, or at least I like to believe that they moved him the way they moved me. According to his classmate Jules Siegel, at Cornell in the fifties, "Tom Pynchon was quiet and neat and did his homework faithfully. He went to Mass and confessed, though to what would be a mystery. He got $25 a week spending money and managed it perfectly, did not cut class and always got grades in the high 90s. His only disappointment was not to have been pledged to a fraternity. . . ." This well-behaved Pynchon was a member of the Silent Generation that went to college in the 50s, a generation taught to act prematurely middle-aged. In the late 1960s, the critic Theodore Solotaroff looked back on the repressed behavior of his generation in the 1950s:

It [the 1950s] was a time when the deferred gratifications. . . and the problems of premature adjustment seemed the warranty of "seriousness" and "responsibility": those solemn passwords of a generation that practiced a Freudian/Jamesian concern about motives, pondered E.M. Forster's "only connect" and subscribed to Lionel Trilling's "moral realism" and "tragic sense of life." In contrast to today [the 1960s], everyone tried to act as though he were thirty (314-15).[8]

In the introduction to Slow Learner, Pynchon mentions "a general nervousness in the whole college-age subculture. A tendency to self-censorship. . . .a felt constraint on folks's writing" (6). He didn't enjoy the 1950s: "Youth of course was wasted on me at the time. . . . One of the most pernicious effects of the '50's was to convince the people growing up during them that it would last forever. Until John Kennedy. . .began to get some attention, there was a lot of aimlessness going around. While Eisenhower was in, there seemed no reason why it should all not just go on as it was" (9, 14) [9]

In the early sixties, Pynchon felt "claustrophobia. I wasn't the only one writing then who felt some need to stretch, to step out. It may have gone back to the sense of academic enclosure we felt which had lent such appeal to the American picaresque life the Beat writers seemed to us to be leading" (Slow Learner 21-22). All of his novels are picaresque, testifying to his restlessness. Recall Pynchon's zany streak, and the fact that he dropped out of Cornell for two years to join the Navy and see the world; this is a writer with wanderlust. After he finished V., he says, "I was on the road at last, getting to visit the places Kerouac had written about" (22).

Nevertheless, when he first got to Berkeley around 1965 he must have felt like a stranger in a strange land, displaced in time and space, as Oedipa did: It was summer, a weekday, and midafternoon; no time for any campus Oedipa knew of to be jumping, yet this one was. . . . posters for undecipherable FSM's, YAF's, VDC's, suds in the fountain, students in nose-to-nose dialogue. She moved through it carrying her fat book, attracted, unsure, a stranger, wanting to feel relevant but knowing how much of a search through alternate universes it would take. For she had undergone her own education at a time of nerves, blandness and retreat among not only her fellow students but also most of the visible structure around and ahead of them. . . this Berkeley was like no somnolent Siwash out of her own past at all, but more akin to those Far Eastern or Latin American universities you read about. . . the sort that bring governments down. . . . Where were Secretaries James and Foster and Senator Joseph, those dear daft numina who'd mothered over Oedipa's so temperate youth? . . . . Among them they had managed to turn the young Oedipa into a rare creature indeed, unfit perhaps for marches and sit-ins, but just a whiz at pursuing strange words in Jacobean texts (Lot 49 75-76).

Pynchon arrived in Berkeley in the early sixties a young man with a lot of hangups to overcome; that place and that time helped to liberate him, as they did so many of us. Like Oedipa, he had been shaped by the fifties into an uptight, bookish young person. But he couldn't live anymore on his overdeveloped intellect alone. Now he was ready to move beyond the books into experience. In the sixties, Pynchon lived a peripatetic life; as in the Beatles song, he got by and he got high with the help of his friends. Throughout the decade, he was close to the life of the counterculture, absorbing its values and smoking its weed, but always listening and observing intently, storing sensations for later use: "for the first time I was also beginning to shut up and listen to the American voices around me, even to shift my eyes away from printed sources and take a look at American nonverbal reality" (Slow Learner 22).

Judging from the evidence of Vineland, he has forgotten nothing of that intense, contradictory decade, neither the dewy-eyed revolutionary idealism nor the grim paranoia, neither the comic excesses nor the tragic waste. The era raised issues that are still unresolved in American society and culture. We keep going back to the 1960s, just as we keep going back to the Civil War of the 1860s: these are contested terrains. As in Gravity's Rainbow, the war goes on, although at levels more difficult to trace.

The struggle now is to define the meaning of a passage of American history which ripped this country apart, to sift through the shards and determine what remains worth carrying into the future. By creating his Becker-Traverse-Gates-Wheeler clan, Pynchon demonstrates how a certain strain of American rebelliousness is passed down the generations. It is imperfect, but it survives. In the words Jess Traverse quotes from Emerson, "Secret retributions are always restoring the level, when disturbed, of divine justice" (Vineland 369). Pynchon has kept faith with all the changes of that decade; they live again in Vineland. Even more, he demonstrates that the sixties aren't over yet — no more than Budapest 1956 or Prague 1968 were the end of that particular story.

According to the novelist E. L. Doctorow, "history is a kind of fiction in which we live and hope to survive, and fiction is a kind of speculative history, perhaps a superhistory" ("False Documents" 25) [10]. Vineland is such a superhistory; it provides a countermyth to pose against the official stories, writing our times more truly through the play of imagination. In all his fiction, Pynchon has helped to create and to recreate our history. He has also helped me to write myself.

Do I know Thomas Pynchon? Do I know the 1960s? Both are mysterious and contradictory, but I'm certain they're still hiding out there somewhere in the desert. Their history has not yet been fully written. Pancho Villa lives.

Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday,
Who could hang a name on you,
When you change with every new day?
Still I'm gonna miss you.
(Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, "Ruby Tuesday")[11]


  1. The Vineland Papers: Critical Takes on Pynchon's Novel, ed. Geoffrey Green, Donald J. Greiner, and Larry McCaffery (Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1994): 167-78.], ed. Geoffrey Green, Donald J. Greiner, and Larry McCaffery (Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1994): 167-78.]
  2. Mitchell, Joni, "Woodstock"
  3. Pynchon, Thomas Vineland Boston: Little, Brown, 1990.
  4. Siegel, Jules. "Who is Thomas Pynchon and why did he take off with my wife?" Playboy, March 1977
  5. Roth, Philip. "Writing American Fiction." Reading Myself and Others. NY: Farrar Strauss, 1975.
  6. Pynchon, Thomas V. 1963; rpt. NY: Bantam, 1964.
  7. Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. 1966; rpt. NY: Bantam, 1967.
  8. Solotaroff, Theodore. The Red Hot Vacuum and Other Pieces on the Writing of the Sixties NY: Atheneum, 1970
  9. Pynchon, Thomas Slow Learner. Boston: Little, Brown, 1984.
  10. Doctorow, E. L. "False Documents" E. L. Doctorow: Essays and Conversations. Ed. Richard Trenner. Princeton, NJ: Ontario Review Press, 1983.
  11. Jagger, Mick and Keith Richards. "Ruby Tuesday"
Gravity's Rainbow Alpha Guide
A·B·C·D·E·F·G·H·I·J·K·L·M·N·O·P·Q·R·S·T·U·V·W·XYZ top of page
Personal tools