After declaring Mary Ann Tharaldsen a Apocalyptic Artist, I go further and suggest the excavation of her lost artwork would bring on Armageddon. Was I right?
After getting stoned with Thomas Pynchon, Pynchon pulled firecrackers out of his pocket and asked if there was somewhere he could shoot them off. Today, thousands who took LSD in the 60s, did so believing our collective minds could stop the genocide in Vietnam and bring about World Peace. When evangelicals failed to elect Sarah Palin with the help of their collective PRAYERS, they reinvented themselves as Revolutionary Soldiers, who armed with the God-given Constitution, would RUIN the choice of the Democrats for President.
Very few see the target here, being, the Christniks must negate the power of secular choice that empowers the idea of Free Will. All things must be ORDAINED. This includes The End Time, that must occur, or they are rendered False Prophets. Mary Ann is a secular prophet, the answer to Sarah Palin.
Why does Pynchon keep firecrackers in his pocket?
In the video I found on the internet, M mentions she did a sculpture. In back of her along the wall, are fresh two by fours lined up like extras on a movie set, or, balletrinas waiting to dance on stage. These boards are Mary Ann’s props that are in a state of suspended animation. Something is going to happen with this lumber. In front of the lumber is M’s LOST ARTWORK that I have never seen! She never told me she was an APOCALYPTIC ARTIST. I have never beheld such chaos, such destruction, such madness and despair. Here is M’s Black Swan Song unveiled at last. But, is it too late? Did the world end as she knew it, a long time ago?
I have never seen these damaged works of art, never knew they existed. What they reveal to me, is, this artist tried to SAVE THE WORLD with HER art. The key word here is “her”, because, women are not allowed to try and save the world. The question here, is, does Mary Ann employ a secular philosophy to do this thing, or, has she borrowed from the church? I knew her as an atheist, but she could be a secret Christian Appologist.
On one of M’s paintings she wrote these words “NO PEACE”. America must rid itself of the idea there must be TOTAL WAR, before there can be peace. Appocolyptic writing came about when Judaic apologists could no longer employ a jumble of chaotic words, allegedly from God, to explain why there is such a thing as HUMAN HISTORY that was growing ever more indifferent to God. Mary Ann’s greatest sin, is, she is a very intelligent, and highly educated, Humanist. Many men want to see her fail.
The person that has helped M get her work back in the light, understands this is a historic event, but, she and M can’t quite put their finger on it. In this still-pic these two women pose like bookends and wave their hands over the dead who reach up to them.
Tom was lanky and unathletic, with protruding teeth that embarrassed him. He stuttered, too, and felt a kinship with Porky Pig. But that same friend ascribes some of Pynchon’s “social behavior issues” to his “very dysfunctional family”—without elaborating. Pynchon himself almost never talked about his parents, especially in his earlier years. But one afternoon in the mid-sixties, he and his then-girlfriend, Mary Ann Tharaldsen, were driving through Big Sur when she complained of nausea. She wanted to stop at a bar and have a shot to settle her stomach. According to Tharaldsen, he exploded, telling her he would not tolerate midday drinking. When she asked why, he told her he’d seen his mother, after drinking, accidentally puncture his father’s eye with a clothespin. It was the only time, says Tharaldsen, who lived with him, that he ever mentioned his family. “He was disconnected from them,” she says. “There seems to have been something not good there.”
Now? A speculative rendering of the novelist today.
Engineering physics, the hardest program at Cornell, was meant to supply Cold War America with its elites—the best and the brightest, junior league. One professor called its students “intellectual supermen”; Pynchon’s old friend David Shetzline remembers them as “the slide-rule boys.” But after less than two years in the major, Pynchon left Cornell in order to enlist in another Cold War operation, the Navy. He once wrote that calculus was “the only class I ever failed,” but he’s always used self-deprecation to deflect inquiries, and professors remembered universally good grades. Tharaldsen says she saw Pynchon’s IQ score, somewhere in the 190s. So why would he leave? He wrote much later about feeling in college “a sense of that other world humming out there”—a sense that would surely nag him from one city to another for the rest of his life. He was also in thrall to Thomas Wolfe and Lord Byron. Most likely he wanted to follow their examples, to experience adventure at ground level and not from the command centers.
“I thought he was a little weird,” says Pynchon’s Cornell friend Kirkpatrick Sale. “He stayed by himself most of the time.” But the goateed introvert came out for a beer once in a while, and noodled around on a guitar. He and Sale began writing an operetta, called “Minstrel Island,” about a land to which artists escaped from a square America ruled by IBM. “That gray-flannel-suit world was very much our future,” Sale says, “and we wanted of course to avoid it.” The goofy, unfinished musical was a precursor to Pynchon’s grand project—charting the fantasies and fears of individuals fleeing an all-consuming machine (Republican, electronic, whatever). Like Pynchon, these figures generally begin as straight arrows—Slothrop the military Wasp; The Crying of Lot 49’s Oedipa Maas coming home from a Tupperware party—insiders forced out by awful visions they never asked to see.
Jules Siegel, in a 1977 Playboy
His alienation had begun to coalesce into a worldview. Pynchon had written to the Sales that Seattle “is a nightmare. If there were no people in it it would be beautiful.” In his next letter, he complained that a group of “ten more or less individuals” at Boeing, “assembled in a conference room … turned into something else: The Magazine.” His letters, like his books, brim with the tension between individuals and groups, between intense curiosity and hopeless disillusionment. For much of his life he would flee crowds and cities, dipping a toe into cultures and communities and then leaving and skewering them in turn. (Friends describe him, in person as on the page, as an incomparable mimic.) Only rarely do we see him ask himself why—as when the Sales, later, pressed him on whether he hated Mexico, too. “What I hate is inside, not outside,” he wrote back, “a kind of deathwish I never knew I had.
In his few public pronouncements, Pynchon has reacted to the term recluse with either defiant denial (“ ‘Recluse’ is a code word generated by journalists … meaning, doesn’t like to talk to reporters,” he told CNN) or self-mockery (“Get your picture taken with a reclusive author!” he yelled to passing traffic on The Simpsons). He did experiment with the condition in Mexico, but he wasn’t cut out for the Salinger school of reclusion; he was too restless for that. A “dedicated sucker” for fictional chase scenes, he seemed to need them in real life, too, whether he was the pursuer or the pursued.
Pynchon was nominated for a National Book Award, won a Faulkner First Novel prize, and was hounded by the press. In a letter to the Sales, he recounted his escape from two Time/Life reporters in Mexico City with a mix of pain and exhilaration. He happened to be out; his landlady told them “she didn’t know nothing, and go away”; he hid out in a motel over the weekend; later he retrieved his stuff and fled for Guanajuato. He suspected that “Lippinfink” was responsible. “So like please, please,” he concluded, “help me stay under cover.”
What finally smoked him out was Richard Fariña’s wedding to Mimi Baez, sister of the famous folk singer. In August, Pynchon took a bus up the California coast to serve as his friend’s best man. Remembering the visit soon after, Fariña portrayed Pynchon with his head buried in Scientific American before eventually “coming to life with the tacos.” Pynchon later wrote to Mimi that Fariña teased him about his “anti-photograph Thing … what’s the matter, you afraid people are going to stick pins; pour aqua regia? So how could I tell him yeah, yeah right, you got it.”
After Fariña’s wedding, Pynchon went up to Berkeley, where he met up with Tharaldsen and Seidler. For years, Pynchon trackers have wondered about Tharaldsen, listed as married to Pynchon in a 1966–67 alumni directory. The real story is not of a secret marriage but a distressing divorce—hers from Seidler. Pynchon and Tharaldsen quickly fell in love, and when Pynchon went back to Mexico City shortly after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Tharaldsen soon followed.
In Mexico, Tharaldsen says, Pynchon wrote all night, slept all day, and kept mostly to himself. When he didn’t write, he read—mainly Latin American writers like Jorge Luis Borges, a big influence on his second novel, The Crying of Lot 49. (He also translated Julio Cortázar’s short story “Axolotl.”) His odd writing habits persisted throughout his life; later, when he was in the throes of a chapter, he’d live off junk food (and sometimes pot). He’d cover the windows with black sheets, never answer the door, and avoid anything that smelled of obligation. He often worked on multiple books at once—three or four in the mid-sixties—and a friend remembers him bringing up the subject of 1997’s Mason & Dixon in 1970.
Tharaldsen grew bored of the routine. Soon they moved to Houston, then to Manhattan Beach. Tharaldsen, a painter, did a portrait of Pynchon with a pig on his shoulder, referencing a pig figurine he’d always carry in his pocket, talking to it on the street or at the movies. (He still identified closely with the animals, collecting swine paraphernalia and even signing a note to friends with a drawing of a pig.) Once Tharaldsen painted a man with massive teeth devouring a burger, which she titled Bottomless, Unfillable Nothingness. Pynchon thought it was him, and hated it. Tharaldsen insists it wasn’t, but their friend Mary Beal isn’t so sure. “I know she regarded him as devouring people. I think in the sense that he—well, I shouldn’t say this, because all writers do it. Writers use people.”
Tharaldsen hated L.A., and decided to go back to school in Berkeley. “I thought they were unserious sort of beach people—lazy bums! But Tom didn’t care because he was inside all day and writing all night.” At the moment, eager to break with his publisher, Lippincott (and rejoin Cork Smith, since departed to Viking), he saw Lot 49 as a quickie “potboiler” meant to break his option with the house—forcing them to either reject it, liberating him, or pay him $10,000. They paid him, defying his own low opinion of it. In his introduction to Slow Learner, a later collection of his early stories, he’d write that with Lot 49, “I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I’d learned up till then.” Now it’s required reading in college courses, a gateway drug to the serious stuff. Which, of course, was his next book: Gravity’s Rainbow.
On the day Fariña’s Been Down So Long was published, the debut author went for a ride on the back of a motorcycle, crashed, and was killed. Pynchon, devastated, wrote to Mimi that Fariña had made him “more open to myself, to experience.” But in the wake of his friend’s death, he seemed only more determined to live purely for himself. By one account, he tried pot more seriously in Berkeley around 1965; it seems this time it took. Later in life, he was known to keep a simple sign up above his desk:
ESCHEW SLOTH. Gravity’s Rainbow is evidence of his success, but in Manhattan Beach, sloth was never further than the surf two blocks from his one-bedroom apartment, or the next delivery of Panama Red, a potent brand of weed smuggled in by a paratrooper with PTSD.
The poet Bill Pearlman, who knew him in those days, once wrote that he “got the impression Pynchon wanted no part of the middle-class adult world”—that he “got more pleasure and information from the young, and was in some ways childlike himself.” There grew around Pynchon, by the beach, something that looks from the distance of years like a cult—a cult of privacy, at least, which paradoxically helped cement the legend of Tom the Recluse. “He was surrounded by a group of people that protected him fiercely,” says Jim Hall, a peripheral member, “and you either were accepted on some level or you were not.”
With his straggly hair and mustache and Army-surplus clothes, the writer who’d once resembled William Faulkner now looked more like Frank Zappa. For a while he took in a girlfriend, the young daughter of Phyllis Coates, TV’s original Lois Lane, and looked after her son, Ethan. “They huddled up in that little dump he lived in,” Coates remembers. “Tom was very good to Ethan.” There was lots of what was once called getting together and is now called hooking up. Among the women was Chrissie Jolly, the wife of Jules Siegel, which is why his Playboy exposé was titled “Who Is Thomas Pynchon … and Why Did He Take Off With My Wife?”
Siegel and Jolly wrote a short book about Pynchon, in which Jolly said he “could slip into any character he wanted. He was really crafty, methodical.” For good measure, she added, “He broke up more than one marriage, because he was too shy to find someone on his own.” Harsh as that may sound, Tharaldsen seconds it: “That seems to be his modus operandi,” she says. “He was very withdrawn, and the one way he could make connections with women would be through his friends … It’s a pattern.”
Pynchon might have been in the city at the time. From Manhattan Beach he’d followed friends up to pot-saturated Eureka, then crashed in New York. In a letter that winter to the Shetzlines, he vented his disenchantment with a city whose bohemian heyday was over. At the Village Gate, there was to be an “Impeachment Rally” against Nixon. “Why didn’t they have one in ’68?” he asked. He railed against the “third rate heads” of New York, the “dirty, desolate heart” of a declining empire, and the righteous proto-yuppie liberals better known as the “urban assholery.” He couldn’t “dig to live a ‘literary’ life no more.” He and a girlfriend might move “across the sea,” or maybe head back West. “Yes, it does sound like ‘aimless drifting,’ doesn’t it?”
In context, Pynchon’s cri de coeur wasn’t that of a radical but of an artist straddling a deep fissure in American life. His sixties friends had retreated into the California woods, the subject-to-be of a novel, Vineland, that he wouldn’t get it together to finish for seventeen years. His literary peers were assimilated into the “assholery” he disdained. A key word in Gravity’s Rainbow is preterite, which literally means bygone, but in Pynchon takes on the meaning of outside, oppressed, non-elite. And who was he?
“I think he withdrew and went to ground,” says Shetzline. “Had a kind of sit-down about where he stood with American cultural confusion. The middle was hard ground to hold … There was no going home.” Pynchon spoke of “riding the ’Hound”: taking a bus from town to town and always sitting in the back, watching the world with a thermos of coffee growing cold in his hand.
Occasionally he came out to visit the Shetzlines in rural Oregon. “I remember Pynchon on the horse I had,” Shetzline says. “He looked like Don Quixote.” Shetzline’s ex-wife Mary Beal says he mostly stayed up late and watched TV. (Kirk Sale remembers his houseguest arguing with his kids over which cartoons to watch.) After crashing in their daughter’s room, Pynchon gave Beal an odd compliment: “People put me up in their kids’ rooms all the time, and hers is the first bed that doesn’t smell of urine.” The Shetzlines were part of an underground railroad for an author on the run. “He was just Mr. Mysterious,” she says.
Once, at a party out in the woods, a man they knew “outed Tom as a famous writer,” Beal recalls. “And of course nobody in the area reads literary novels—just a bunch of country folk … It mortified Tom to the point where he left the following day.” What could have been so mortifying? Beal thinks it had more to do with being unknown to a room full of people than it did with the one guy who was hounding him.
A Pynchon tracker has found at least one actual “hidey-hole” of his, as Shetzline calls it. Between 1976 and 1977, he spent more than a year in a neat but tiny redwood cabin in Trinidad, California, separated by 300 feet of trees from the lush, rocky shore of the Pacific. It’s deep in Humboldt County, the hippie paradise at the center of Vineland.
But that book wasn’t one of the two he was contracted by Viking to write. Those were Mason & Dixon, about the surveyors, and a never-written novel about an insurance adjuster flown in to Japan to assess the damage done by Godzilla. Viking had granted him a $1 million advance, beginning with $50,000 a year for three years. In his first experiment with reclusion, Pynchon had made do on $1,000 in Mexico; now he was living on a doctor’s salary in a glorified lean-to, years out from a finished book. Having eluded the media and the narcs but not his own paranoia, Pynchon had succeeded in eschewing the machine; now what about sloth?
Pynchon eased himself gradually, like a scuba diver, back to the surface of mainstream life. He spent a couple more years researching in California, but by the summer of 1988, when he won a $310,000 MacArthur “Genius” grant, he was reached through Jackson in New York (though the MacArthur Foundation had him listed as living in Boston at the time). Vineland came out two years later. A surprisingly accessible, loose, and goofy work about the last refuge of the left in the age of Reagan, it disappointed readers weaned on Pynchon’s dazzling complexity. David Foster Wallace was among the disenchanted. He wrote to Jonathan Franzen that Vineland was “heartbreakingly inferior” and that “I get the strong sense he’s spent twenty years smoking pot and watching TV.” He wasn’t terribly far off, but he missed something, too. His fallen hero had already transformed again, and thrown in his lot—if not exactly with the Reaganites, then certainly not with the shaggy pot-growers of Humboldt County.
Pynchon and Jackson married in 1990 and had a son—first name Jackson—a year later. Pynchon told friends he was seeing a lot more of his parents. His next novel, Mason & Dixon, had far more heft and wild invention than Vineland but sped along more briskly and powerfully than Gravity’s Rainbow. Embedded in it, too, was a far more sophisticated treatment of his American roots—the Pynchons were a long line of surveyors—than his portrait of the decrepit Slothrops. After that came Against the Day, a big and messy novelistic attack on capitalism, written by an author increasingly at peace with its comforts.
The onetime inhabitant of fleabag motels rented an apartment with his family on a major intersection of the Yupper West Side and went cautiously semi-public. Pynchon had already begun writing for the New York Times: an essay in defense of Luddites; a review of Love in the Time of Cholera; a piece on his favorite deadly sin, sloth. Whereas in the past he’d mostly communicated with peers by letter or phone—calling Harlan Ellison “from time to time,” once to badger him to stop paying income taxes, but never giving the author his number—he now sat down for actual meals with Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie, and Ian McEwan. When the struggling sitcom The John Larroquette Show floated a Pynchon story line, he agreed, so long as it didn’t portray his face and clad his fictional avatar in a Roky Erickson T-shirt. A decade later, he consented to appear on The Simpsons—mainly, he said, because his son was a fan. Showrunner Al Jean remembers a casual, mustachioed figure, son and wife in tow. They discussed private schools and kitchen renovations. Pynchon politely declined a photo-op: “I don’t usually take pictures.” He appeared twice during the show’s run, wearing a paper bag. The first time he didn’t alter a word, but for his second cameo he threw in a bonus pun: “The Frying of Latke 49.”
The last thing we should get straight about Thomas Pynchon is that, “classicism” aside, all of his books are in some way autobiographical. Inherent Vice, for instance, starring a perma-stoned “gum-sandal” detective, owed a lot to the characters Pynchon knew in Manhattan Beach. Maybe it speaks to his special fondness for the book—or just the bucket-list dreams of a movie-mad author—that it’s soon to become his first novel adapted for the screen. It’s currently being directed in L.A. by the “imperial” auteur Paul Thomas Anderson, with Joaquin Phoenix in the lead.
Rake’s Progress links to a Pynchon mailing list post featuring Jules Siegel’s old Playboy article, “Who is Thomas Pynchon… And Why Did He Take Off With My Wife?: Shedding a little light on the most famous author-recluse since J. D. Salinger.” (Be sure to read the second page, too.)
Among other things, Siegel claims that Pynchon had a penchant for pot and hash and that he said while rewriting Gravity’s Rainbow, “‘I was so fucked up while I was writing it …. that now I go back over some of those sequences and I can’t figure out what I could have meant.’” He also reports that his wife said, after her affair with Pynchon, that he “was a wonderful lover, sensitive and quick,” but “somewhat unworldly and bookish, easily astonished by her boldness.”
In his March 1977 Playboy article, “Who Is Thomas Pynchon…And Why Did He Take Off With My Wife?”, Jules Siegel claims that in 1966 he visited Pynchon in his one-room apartment in Manhattan Beach, California, while on assignment to do an article on Bob Dylan for The Saturday Evening Post, to wit:
“I told him [TRP] about the Dylan assignment. ‘You ought to do one on The Beach Boys,’ he said. I pretended to ignore that. A year or so later, I was in Los Angeles again, doing a story for the Post on The Beach Boys [ultimately published by Cheetah magazine]. He had forgotten his earlier remark and was no longer interested in them. I took him to my apartment in Laurel Canyon, got him royally loaded and made him lie down on the floor with a speaker at each ear while I played Pet Sounds, their most interesting and least popular record. It was not then fashionable to take The Beach Boys seriously.
“‘Ohhhhh,” he sighed softly with stunned pleasure after the record was done. ‘Now I understand why you are writing a story about them.'”
Tom Hangs with Brian
Brian Wilson, 1966
According to the 2006 bio of Brian Wilson, Catch A Wave: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson (Peter Ames Carlin, Rodale, 2006), Jules Siegel and Pynchon paid a visit to Brian in Beverly Hills:
When Siegel brought his friend Thomas Pynchon up to the house one night, the famous hipster novelist sat in stunned, unhappy silence while the nervous, stoned pop star — who had dragged him into his then-new Arabian tent to get high — kept kicking over the oil lamp he was trying to light. “Brian was kind of afraid of Pynchon, because he’d heard he was an Eastern intellectual establishment genius,” Siegel recalls. “And Pynchon wasn’t very articulate. He was gonna sit there and let you talk while he listened. So neither of them really said a word all night long. It was one of the strangest scenes I’d ever seen in my life.” (p.103-104).
See also Smoking Dope with Thomas Pynchon
Smoking Dope with Thomas Pynchon
A Sixties Memoir
by Andrew Gordon
Andrew Gordon, PhD
[This article appeared in The Vineland Papers: Critical Takes on Pynchon’s Novel ]
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?
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 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.
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: