Q&A: Robert Goolrick on Searching for Thomas Pynchon

In a 1978 article for New Times (not to be confused with the alternative weeklies published by Village Voice Media) titled “Pieces of Pynchon,” author Robert Goolrick recounted his efforts to locate reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon. Goolrick answered a few questions about the genesis of the story, its aftermath, and his thoughts about Pynchon’s seclusion.

What was the genesis of writing this story? Was it really as simple as sitting in that Japanese restaurant one day?

I was actually having lunch with a friend of mine, and there was a lot of talk at the time about Pynchon’s mystery. Somebody at Time magazine had looked for a picture of him and couldn’t get one. So it was sort of a bet—I said, “I’ll find him.” And he was an editor at New Times, and so that’s how it started.

Did you have much in the way of leads?

I knew Nora Ephron, and Nora kind of knew everybody in publishing. In the article, if you remember, there’s somebody who says to find somebody who hates him enough to tell me where he is, and it was Nora who said that. So I just started out calling people, and finding out what I could find out. I wasn’t really a journalist. I’m not an investigative reporter, so it was kind of abstract from the beginning, and it became more abstract as it went along, as you can tell.

I was going to say that the piece is very indicative of that era of New Journalism. There are parts of it, like the conversation with the psychic, that wouldn’t appear in a magazine today, even ones that feature long-form journalism.

Yes. And I did actually go to a psychic—all of it’s true. I even at one point—It’s not in the article because the article is so long that it had to get cut, but I hired this wacky, insane private detective. I didn’t want to give him Pynchon’s name because I thought he would be relentless and really like, stalk him. But I went to him to say, “How would you find somebody who couldn’t be found?” So I got involved in this whole nightmarish thing with this crazy private detective.

Crazy how?

He kind of stalked me. He called me all the time. He wanted to stay in my apartment. I met him for drinks at the St. Regis, and was telling me all these stories from the 40s—he was this older guy—when Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra were staying at the St. Regis, and he was just full of wacky, insane stories. He had some weird office somewhere on way west 34th Street.

How did you come to decide to personalize the story the way you did?

I think I personalized it because everywhere I went I ran into these dead ends. Mostly because the people who knew him and knew where he was—if anybody knew where he was—wouldn’t talk about him. Faith Sale said it best: “I love him, and the only way to express my love is not to talk about it.” So I thought, what am I gonna do? Then I thought, you know, you spent all this time looking—you should find something. And something of value to you. That’s when I remembered this old friend of mine from college and started to find him.

The most interesting part was talking to Pynchon’s mother. His mother was as normal as apple pie, and was perfectly nice and perfectly regular. This was before the Internet, so it was a lot harder to track people down in those days. I just remember reading some article somewhere saying they lived in this little town on Long Island—Riverhead or somewhere. And I just called the phone directory and got their number, and called her up one morning. We had a long conversation, and she was really open and friendly, and kind of sweet. But she wouldn’t say anything.

The way she comes across in the story, it’s almost as if Pynchon is a long-lost son.

Candida Donadio said he wouldn’t see anybody. She said that he never saw Faith Sale anymore, which is not what Faith Sale said. It was all a big mystery, and there was no answer. When I was talking to Candida, I said, “How will I ever find him?” and she said, “You’ll never find him. If you write an article and if it gets published, and if he likes it, he will find you.”

Which begs the question: How was the story received?

Well, it made me kind of notorious for about three weeks, the way things do. And the ultimate end of the story was, I happened to be home one day—it happened to be my birthday. And I come home from work, and I was changing to go out for dinner, and the phone rang. I picked it up and said hello, and this guy said, “My name is…” I can’t remember his name. He said, “You don’t know me, but I’m a private investigator in San Francisco. And I happened to read your article about Thomas Pynchon. And he said, “In connection with some other case I’m investigating, I happened to find out where Thomas Pynchon lives. I found out everything about him, and I just thought you might want the information.” I said OK, so he gave me Pynchon’s address, Pynchon’s phone number, Pynchon’s driver’s license number. He was in California, apparently. The conversation went on for a long time. I hung up the phone, went out to dinner, and after a while I thought, “Who was that on the phone?” And it occurred to me that maybe it was Pynchon himself who called. Why would a strange private investigator call me a year later? But I was—by that time, I was so aware of Pynchon’s sensitivities that I never pursued it.

You never called, never checked out the address.

I never called or looked up the address. It seems regrettable, all these years later. But by that time I realized that there was nothing to be gotten out of him. There was nothing for him except his work. That was the only way that he was going to connect with the public.

What did it mean to be published in New Times back then?

It was filled with very young, on-the-way-up journalists. Frank Rich was there, Jesse Kornbluth was there, Nora Ephron, Richard Corliss. It was a very cool magazine, and it just didn’t take off. I wrote four or five articles for them.

Did you pursue much journalism after that?

Very little. I wrote a couple pieces for Rolling Stone, which they never published. I wrote for a magazine called Metropolitan Home—I did a lot of articles about home style. I got kind of tired of doing pieces about famous people. I wasn’t really a journalist, and my interest in them was more fictional than it was practical. I remember I was asked to write a piece about Janis Ian, and I thought, “What on earth do I really want to know about Janis Ian?” I couldn’t think of anything I really wanted to know. It seemed live a very artificial kind of form.

You mentioned in an e-mail to me that you had some advice about getting a photo of Pynchon.

I told New Times when they published the article, “I can get a picture of him. If you want a picture of him, I can get a picture of him.” They said, “The article is now about so many things other than Pynchon that to publish a picture of him would be beside the point.” But here’s a way to find a picture of him: He was the best man at Richard and Mimi Fariña’s wedding, and he was the pallbearer at Fariña’s funeral. Fariña’s funeral was a sort of public event, as well as a private event, and if you want to find a picture of him, the person who’s got one is Mimi Fariña. Because everybody’s got pictures of her wedding, and there are bound to be pictures of his funeral—it was a big deal, because he died the same day as the publication of Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. And he was kind of a romantic young guy.

I didn’t get the impression from the story that she would’ve been especially open to that, though.

She was very open in talking about him, and she had, even then, she had a kind of thinly veiled contempt for him. Mostly because he had totally abandoned his friendship with Mimi once Richard was dead. He went to the funeral, he was a pallbearer at the funeral, and then she never heard from him again.

As an author, what do you think motivates Pynchon’s isolation?

Everybody told me he’s incredibly shy. That’s the only insight I have. I know for a fact that he married, had children; his children went to a private school in New York, and people that I knew, knew his children. He is now, what, 71 years old? So the children are grown. The children exist, and probably in new York City. He could be found. My general sense was, if you choose to connect to the world only through your work, then that should be respected in some way.

For me, I kind of think that there was a moment where he kind of held the reins of the zeitgeist in his hands, and then he kind of lost it. I found his later work very disappointing and diffuse. I haven’t read the new novel—it may be brilliant. I didn’t think Vineland was great, and I didn’t think Mason & Dixon was very great. I don’t know, but there was a moment when he was completely in sync w/the tenor of the times, and was completely a genius. He is a genius in some way.

He’s an odd duck. He’s so private that he’s willing, for instance, 30 years ago to cut himself off from his own mother and father. One thing I knew was that he was by nature a scientist, a scientist and engineer. One of the most fascinating things in that story was the story about the bricks, and going to the Philadelphia and getting the clay and taking samples. He is the most obsessive writer I’ve ever come across. So he must be an incredibly obsessive person.

But, the people who I talked to liked him, said that he was entirely lovable, once you got to know him. My only regret about the whole thing is that I never called the number that the private investigator gave me. But I think by that time I relished the mystery more than the reality.

Robert Goolrick, “Pieces of Pynchon”

In 1978 Robert Goolrick, author of the 2007 memoir The End of the World as We Know It and the new novel A Reliable Wife, attempted to locate Thomas Pynchon. He detailed his efforts in the article below, “Pieces of Pynchon,” which originally appeared in the October 16, 1978 issue of New Times magazine. It’s reprinted with Goolrick’s permission. (Thanks to Lawrence Tate for the tip.)

For more on the genesis of this story, see a Q&A with Robert Goolrick.

Mexico City. The message had said to wait, and of course, having come so far, I waited, and of course I had gotten horribly sick. Now the room in the full moon of midnight lay like a tired ghost littered with the signs of a fever unbroken. Sheets all roiled up, pajamas specked with yellow vomit, half-drunk bottle of mineral water, morphine tablets cheaply bought and badly shot—the one comfort of it all being the certain knowledge that the room was of the sort your mother would, if she knew you were there, come and take you away from.

It was hot. It was late. Perhaps because of the fever, or perhaps because the wind had shifted to some much more malign quarter of the compass, I woke up. I was not alone. A spidery shadow moved softly on the opposite wall. I turned on the light. The old bellboy of the hotel, last vestige of elegance now gone as seedy as the rest, was picking through my shirts, turning the cuffs to see the maroon monogram.

“What the hell are you doing?” I shouted, my fever lunging at him through the room, my body unable to move. He stopped, turned toward me, dry lips smiling, showing very bad teeth. “I thought you wanted to see me.”

“I didn’t send for anybody.”

“Ah. But you did. You see, I’m Thomas Pynchon….”


No. it didn’t happen like that. I’ve never been to Mexico City, never saw Tom Pynchon there. I’ve never taken morphine. Maybe we should start this all over, and this time I’ll really tell you about Thomas R-for-Ruggles Pynchon, how I looked for him and what I found.


Something had gone all mushy and rotten in the heart of America. Life had lost image, and we had lost belief. No one was guilty, no one responsible. So we moved, intangible as the world around us, from event to event, from the theater to the discotheque and back again, stopping off for a quick peek at the galleries to see who was desperately painting what, a television sort of life: fast, acrid, without substance. Mushy and rotten.

Life became a rather medicated extravaganza, a pharmaceutical parody of monasticism and self-containment. All around, people were leaping to est, or to ever more complicated forms of charging high-priced articles, or to cocaine habits or to homosexuality. Men confused me with their fine clothes and careful, Victorian mustaches, and somehow it was a leap, like most others, that required more faith than I could find. So I lived like most everybody, torn between two possibilities that are equally unreal; the everything and the nothing that surround us at every moment.

But one day at lunch in a Japanese restaurant, I wanted to find Thomas Pynchon. Not so much because he would know the truth—I had no questions and he probably had no answers—but just to have searched and to have found and touched one other thing outside myself, something whose existence was problematical but could, through faith and diligence, be proved.

I don’t know why he occurred to me in particular. Nobody knows where he lives. Nobody knows what he looks like, or sounds like, or smells like, or whether he laughs much. He has given the world, from his great distance, three novels, some short stories, a piece in the New York Times Magazine.

He has won the National Book Award, the Faulkner Prize. He has won and refused the William Dean Howells Medal, which is given to the most important work of fiction to be published in America every five years.

His first book, V., was published in 1963. It is a tangled maze of events revolving around the search of one Herbert Stencil to uncover the identity of a mysterious woman whose initial he finds mentioned in his father’s journals. It is often funny, it is sometimes wise, and it is very often sophomoric, overdone to the point of ridicule in the obsessive exactitude of its historical details, which range from the history of the Fashoda incident in Egypt in 1898 to the exact lingo and downbeat cool of New York in 1956.

It is a very long book that does not hold up terribly well over the years, but it has about it the unmistakable first flash of genius. Critics have written reams about it, students now study it with reverential patience, Richard Poirier called it “the most masterful first novel in the history of literature….”

It’s one of those books critics love because there is so much literary style to it; allusions, alliterations, metaphors, metopes, triglyphs. It’s full of mysterious clues and cross references and arch insinuation. But it seems to be about a rather simple thing. Or rather, two simple things.

The first is coincidence. As the title implies, in the shape of its single letter, parallels converge. These moments of coincidence are the heart of V. They are the nodes at which things seem to happen in a random world. Critics have trotted out every analytical reference from quantum physics to Duck Soup, but it takes no special contortion to see that, for Pynchon, the world is full of vague and often threatening intangibles, and that at these moments of coincidence, these chance meetings of disparate elements, some truth is established, as if, suddenly, we could tell both what a thing is and how fast it is going. It is not very permanent, and it is ultimately not very comforting. For all the book’s chapters, the central truth, what has happened in the past, what the future will bring, and what It Was All About will remain untouchable. Things will appear, only to hurtle into the Void that always waits with an unblinking eye.

But, and this is the second thing, the world is so full of phenomena, events past and present, that we can, indeed, must, put things together almost any way we want and seem to make a system out of it all. The only convergences that matter are the ones we can see. The others are mere possibilities in the malevolent void waiting to devour us, either with the ultimate revelation of a horrible truth we cannot name, or with an obscene silence. Pynchon’s is a picture of the world as the shaky construction of a fanatical paranoid, but a construction that must be made in order to stave off the final admission that nothing is of any meaning; and meaning, if it existed, would have no value.

The brilliance of the book is that it becomes the thing it talks about. Its endless detail, its childish and maddening insistency on coincidence, its structuring of the world around an irrelevant hollow, all cause V., to paraphrase Archibald MacLeish, not to mean but to be. You could explicate it for years, and come away from all that drudgery with a hell of a lot of useless arcana, and no more, really, than the same vaguely disquieting feeling the book gave you on first reading—the feeling that something is wrong but you can’t quite put your finger on it, that something is missing but you haven’t the faintest idea where to look.

And that, in easy-to-digest pill form, is what all of Pynchon is about. The second book, The Crying of Lot 49, is, in view of the massive length of the other two books, only a short story, a flip of Pynchon’s wrist. It is about the postal system, it really and truly is. A woman named Oedipa Maas, wife of Mucho, suburban housewife inextraordinaire, your average American late-sixties neurotic and seeker, stumbles on what she thinks is an ancient alternate postal system, operating in secret. This becomes for her a symbol of The Plot, of all They have done to us over the years, creating systems to keep us in our places, places that turn out more and more to be some barren housing project in a thinly fertile California. Oedipa looks for the system she believes is there, and can find only the refuse—vague, useless details of the system called The Tristero; loses, in her search, husband, lover, psychiatrist, sanity and safety, all to find what she knows can only be, in the end, a very small truth.

The book is filled with manic hilarity and vast cleverness, but it’s a sad book, like picking through the tattered contents of an abandoned house. Coming at the slag end of a bright and poisonous decade, it tells of a woman who looks for the hope of late-sixties America, and comes up empty-handed and grasping for straws. In search of what we always called The American Dream, she finds instead the detritus of American reality; faithless, hopeless, entropic.

Gravity’s Rainbow is mammoth. It is about the end of World War II, more specifically about the rocket known as the V-2. V and now V-2.

Gravity’s Rainbow won the National Book Award, and later the Howells Medal. It is wonderfully brilliant, the writing clear and often lyrically, guiltlessly sentimental. The book is chock-a-block full of detail, and it is of course about paranoia and convergence. It says that, in the mercantile system that produced the rockets that produced the war that produced all the years that followed, the place where the rocket takes off and the place where it lands are in reality the same spot. They are connected by more than the arc of destruction. There is really no difference between them.

It takes 400 pages for Pynchon to get going on this idea, and it takes almost 400 more for him to get tired of it. I would venture to say that Gravity’s Rainbow is one of the least read important books ever. It is important. It is dense and difficult, but it is a masterpiece of idea and execution. Pynchon has found, miraculously, more than any other writer, a metaphor for modern American life, a way of speaking that tells us more about ourselves than we most likely care to know.

And it is, emotionally, an act of great and kind faith, a belief that some truth can still be located and preserved in words. And perhaps even that there are still those with the courage and care to wade through the 760 pages on the off chance that some of that truth may actually emerge.


In an age in which fame is now served up as a smorgasbord where most people eat too much and never find sustenance, Pynchon has achieved fame by refusing to sample a single dish. Through it all, the hoopla and the high praise, Pynchon has refused to be lured into the public eye, onto the carousel of the fame that was waiting for him, glittering, bitchy, eternal, prepaid. A sort of literary Howard Hughes, cloaked in mystery, closely protected and almost invisible. His editors at Viking say nothing. His agent says nothing. His family and friends get lumps in their throats and refuse to talk. He has never been found, never been photographed.

I knew that the usual roads would not find him, people a lot more clever than I had tried them all, and that, in the end, there was nothing I wanted to ask him; it didn’t matter in the slightest to me how many ice cubes he liked in his drinks,whether or not he snorted the incredibly long lines of cocaine one feels dribbling off the pages of Gravity’s Rainbow, or where he lived now or what secret dark facts he held about his apple-pie boyhood. So I looked for alternate routes, ways not so trampled. I looked, I suppose, for a miracle of belief, that some other thing existed and could be found and touched and finally known.


It takes, unhappily, no more than a desk and writing supplies to turn any room into a confessional. This may have nothing to do with the acts we have committed, or the humours we do go in and out of. It may be only the room—a cube—having no persuasive powers of its own. The room simply is. To occupy it, and find a metaphor there for memory, is our own fault. —V.


“What you’re talking about here is the absolute power of literary gossip,” said an editor. “The way to find him is to find somebody who has reason to hate somebody who knows where he is. I can’t tell you where to go. But you should talk to Peter Kemeny. He knows everything about everybody, and has good reason to hate a lot of people. He’s crazy, but very smart. He may know nothing, but find him and ask him. It’s a place to start.”

She wrote his name on a little piece of paper and gave it to me, and I looked for Peter Kemeny. He didn’t work where he used to work,. He wasn’t listed in any of the lists that were supposed to show his name. Oh, he’s crazy, people said. Poor boy, doesn’t he live with his mother?

So it was a dead end. People in the literary crowd drop names. Don Barthelme. Willie Gaddis. Ted Solotaroff. Tom Pynchon. But people seemed to have dropped Peter Kemeny’s name altogether. And so did I, after awhile.

One night, months later, Peter Kemeny haunted me in a dream, and I woke up anxious, determined to start the telephone calls again. At breakfast I opened the New York Times to read that Peter Kemeny had fallen under the IRT train the day before, at 42nd Street. They say he was brilliant. He was 37. Youth moves so well and breaks so easily. And nobody ever really falls under a train.


Those like Slothrop, with the greatest interest in discovering the truth, were thrown back on dreams, psychic flashes, omens, cryptographies, drug-epistomologies, all dancing on a ground of terror, contradiction, absurdity. —Gravity’s Rainbow


There was a very famous murder on 72nd Street, one of those best-seller ones, but the sun still shines with a sort of outmoded crispness, illuminating the skinny hustle and the Puerto Rican liquor stores of upper Broadway, not reaching far enough to cut the gloom of the long dark bar where a girl went, picked out a man with just the right kind of swagger to take her home and slit her throat.

You can see the windows of her apartment, through the golden motes of a Broadway afternoon, from inside the two rooms where Joseph Brugman lives. Joseph Brugman is a psychic. He closes his eyes and predicts the future; uncovers the past, finds lost souls who have left their wives and wandered off to North Carolina where they are surprised leading more or less the same kind of lives they were so desperate to leave behind.

In Gravity’s Rainbow there is a medium named Carrroll Eventyr who delves deeply into psychic spaces, and I thought, well, if Pynchon believes it, there’s no reason I shouldn’t. I’ve always had a horror of psychics, and Joseph Brugman was quintessentially what I had imagined a psychic to be. Tall, thin, his head almost shaved of its gray hair, he stood in the kitchen cooking a stew that he said was for the cat, although he seemed to be tasting it with relish, seasoning it with the matronly care of the bachelor.

I sat there while he cooked, watching a cockroach that crawled across the floor looking for the warm square of afternoon light that lay between the two second-rate Chinese Chippendale chairs. “I love those chairs with all my heart,” said Brugman. “My chairs, my kitty and my Lord.”

“Look,” I said. “I came here because I want to find somebody. He wrote this book….” I handed over the $4.95 paperback of Gravity’s Rainbow, 79,000 sold, “…and I happen to believe that if anybody’s got an aura, he’s got one, and it is strong and bright as something he writes about called the Kirghiz Light, and it can be found.”

“Well,” said Brugman, “how very interesting. You’ve saved us and the Lord a lot of time.” He finished his cigarette, put it out in an ashtray on the floor and closed his eyes. Everything stilled. Even the cockroach found his light and lay idling in the avocado green tufts of the shag rug.

Finally Brugman spoke. His voice in the silence, at least in what passes for silence on 72nd Street, was sweet and patient as an old lady’s.

“Meecham,” he said, and then paused interminably. “Meecham… I see California and Southeast Asia, Vietnam….” His eyes stayed closed, the room growing darker as he spoke, the cat turning over soundlessly.

“I see travel in Europe, in England. He lives now in the United States…. lives like a derelict in the United States, drinking, drinking a lot. He is writing…he lives under another name…poetry, essays of an inspirational nature.”

Slowly, delicately, but sweating from the exertion of pulling these bizarre teeth out of the cosmic mouth. he whispered: “I see cities…Pittsburgh, there’s a friendship there with somebody…ocean….water…shorelines. He lives where he can see the sea. Cities indicate a positiveness, a power. He may not live there, they are just symbols of great strength, in him, in me…maybe in you. Boston, Manhattan, Florida.

“Argentina…Mexico, I see Mexico. There is a contact there with somebody close, still important to him.

“He is slightly balding, about 5′ 10″… a little overweight, not in good physical condition, not married… You will find him through ads, I see ads. He has been in the hospital several times…not well at all. In six months, you will find him, you will see a picture…. Remember, he has gained weight since the picture was taken, grown a mustache, changed his face.

“Stone…” Brugman said. “The word or the name. He is hard to find…moves from one person to another, from one house to another. Not as a recluse…no, he has friends, mostly male, but no romance. He is energetic and involved—hunting, hunting, almost possessed, you might say…. He is destructive towards himself, not actively suicidal…but fallen to deep despair.

“Beekman…Place or Hospital. Put ads…not in the daily newspapers, but in small literary magazines.”

He turned his face to what was left of the light, his eyelids seemed impossibly thin over his fluttering eyes. “Find a woman named Phyllis. She lives in New York, not working, was or is married. She acts for this writer as a friend in the arts.

“I keep hearing, over and over, the word Valence…. You will find him when you are desperate enough.” He paused, looked at his watch. “Is there anything you’d like to ask me? You can, you know.”

“Why do I want to find him? What am I looking for?”

“Rapture. A sense of the soul, of the mind, a sense of what you would like to be.

“You are looking for love. Not romantic love, but love all the same. You know,” and suddenly I wanted like hell to get out of there, to get away from the cat stew and the cockroaches and the bloody hallways of 72nd Street, “you are a very loving person, but you’re all bound up inside, hesitant to open your heart, unable to reveal yourself even to the people you love. That’s what you’re looking for, what you’ve set out to find.”

“Will I change?” The room was almost dark now, and I could see his eyes glint as the rocker began to sway backwards and forwards. “Yes. You will change.” He laughed softly, a nice laugh, really. He wasn’t spooky or unkind and whatever the truth of the gobbledygook he spouted out of his darkness, he honestly believed he could see through the thin and breeze-blown curtain of what we call with such quick surety everyday life.

“You know,” he looked at me. “I don’t really know. I just say that because I hope it’s true. It’s like going into a dark room and hitting out at the light switch. If you push it enough times, the light might come on….”

As I was getting my things together, he asked me to come back. We made an appointment for the next week. I was to call and confirm it.

There was never any answer. The phone would ring and ring with nobody but the cat and the cockroach to hear it.

Two weeks later I dialed Brugman’s number, listened to the ringing. “I can’t get my psychic on the phone,” I said to myself. “There is some hopeless contradiction in terms here somewhere.” I hung up and never called again.

Rapture and love. Funny words for a sleazy old ten-dollar psychic to use, telling me in the next breath about his church in New Jersey which got the money I gave him, some Church of the Holy Heebie-Jeebies where a lot of strange types, widows, traveling salesmen, recidivists and pale young men saved from smack got together to predict the future in vague Sybillic sweeps.

Rapture and love. Quite specific, and quite frightening. Rapture, because it implies an obsessiveness that is willing to sacrifice the comfortable to the unimagined; and love because it has become in America the absolute impossible, the gift that is wrapped and rewrapped, never to be given away.

Perhaps what he meant was that in Pynchon I had chosen a love that was possible because it had no object, merely an extended longing for a body that could not be found or desired, having no height, no weight, no texture I would ever know. Like a light switch you could hit a million times in a million ways, and never even see the faintest glimmer in the room where you live.


I began to dream about Pynchon. Always the same dream: I would stand on a California street, squinting in the sun, he would walk toward me, past the oleander and bird of paradise growing in that vulgar L.A. profusion. He would wear khaki trousers and a white shirt with the cuff buttons unbuttoned, a sure sign of insanity, my mother once told me. We would shake hands and I would ask him a question. He would answer softly, I would touch his face.

The question. Sitting in a restaurant, a friend asked me how I would know Pynchon if I had found him, how I could be sure he had not sent a fake along just to check the scene out.

Well, I thought, there’s the riddle.

In Gravity’s Rainbow there is an intriguing and probably hilarious riddle that is never answered, a cute and not very important witticism that fascinated me. That’s what I’ll ask him, I thought. He’ll know the answer and I’ll know he’s real.


An article came out two years ago presenting the bizarre but maddeningly well put together theory that Pynchon was really J.D. Salinger. The article claimed that none of the information in Pynchon’s austere and cryptographic biography was provable, that it was all a lie promulgated by a clever and well-paid literary cabal, a plot dreamed up by Salinger to replace the failing power of an old persona with the glittering brilliance of a new one. Now, there may be a well-paid and unbelievably foxy literary cabal, and God knows, Salinger must be doing something up there in his New Hampshire concrete bunker, but it seems most unlikely that you could trade in the black and violet-scented existentialism of the fifties for the electronic, movie maddened hip which pervades Pynchon’s work. Maybe it’s an easy match that makes a kind of paranoid sense out of multiple unknowns, the comfort of killing two invisible birds with an imaginary stone, but the theory is a fake. Thomas Pynchon is not J.D. Salinger.

Pynchon really was born in Glen Cove, New York, in 1937. His father is Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, engineer, living to this day out there in a town where he is a prominent Republican.

Pynchon’s mother and father live on a street with the all-American name of Walnut Avenue, where they have lived since before the man his mother calls, sweetly, Tom, Jr., went to Cornell in 1953. He graduated in 1959, having taken two years off to go into the Navy, with distinction in all subjects.

I learned all this on the telephone. People spoke quite easily about it all, with the possible exception of the woman in the Cornell alumni office who told me with what sounded like fear in her voice that Pynchon had written to ask that “his name be removed from the alumni lists.” She sounded distraught, as though she had personally lost him, or might be pistol-whipped if she told what she really knew.

His father is easy to find, his mother easy to talk to. “I can’t tell you anything,” is what she actually said. “Tom Jr., just wouldn’t like it. You see, he likes to do the writing himself.” Well, does she see him, or know where he is, could she find him tomorrow if she wanted to? “Well, I really couldn’t say.”

And Pynchon’s brother and sister, do they see him? “They’re grown up now.” She sounded a little sad, the way mother do who suddenly find their hands empty. “They’re all grown up.”


Faith and Kirkpatrick Sale are one of those devastatingly young New York couples. Lovely house, and a place in the country. Undoubtedly perfect children. A story about them in People magazine. He published a highly praised book about the rise of the Southern Rim, she was the copy editor for Gravity’s Rainbow. They are also very old friends of Pynchon’s, since the days of Cornell.

“It’s a good thing you got me and not Kirk,” said Faith Sale over the telephone. “He would have just hung up in your face.”

“I just wanted to ask you one thing,” I said. “Could you prove that Tom Pynchon is real, if you had to?”

“Good God, I can’t say anything. I mean, I’m not sure I could prove that I’m real. How do you do that?

“But yes, to the best of my knowledge,” choosing her words with exact care, “he is a real person as I am a real person. He is not Salinger. He is not Willie Gaddis. He is a separate person. He does exist.”

I asked some inane things, trying to lead her on. “Look,” she said, sounding tired, and a little rushed, as if Kirk might walk in at any moment, or as if some perfect bouillabaisse were about to boil over and ruin. “I love Tom Pynchon very much. And the funny thing is, I love to talk about him. But I must…prove my love by not talking about him, ever, to anybody. Does that make sense?”

Well, not really. But I couldn’t go on any longer berating an intelligent, soft-spoken woman whose husband might walk in any second from the garden.


Professor Irwin Corey was glad to talk. Talk is his business, talk born of intelligence and an almost maniacal will to amuse. Irwin Corey gave the acceptance speech when Pynchon won the N.B.A.

“See, Herb Gardner is a friend of Tom Guinzburg’s, and I was doing a play for Herb so they asked me to give this speech. I said that Pynchon wanted to share the award with Solzhenitsyn, that Russian? Gulag Archipelago is pure fiction, you know, doesn’t have the least little thing to do with anything; I mean, my God the Russians refused to print it because it was so untrue, not a word of truth in it, so it was printed in the end by Russia’s enemies.

“I’d never met this Pynchon boy, I had never read the book, so I just made a little speech full of absurdities of various sorts. They all thought I was Pynchon, and I’d never even read the thing, which, I might add, I later did, and I found it laborious but interesting, and I just said a few things. I think I quoted H.L. Mencken when he said some fool thing like, ‘Nobody ever went broke underestimating the American public.’ See he shared the award with that Isaac Singer, who is also full of shit, so it didn’t matter what I had to say. I guess everybody just thought it was a parody of Pynchon’s style. He lives up in the Poconos, somewhere.”


“The Poconos. You know, those mountains. They have to send his checks somewhere. I mean, he’s made a damn fortune. He has to get hold of the money somehow. I gotta go now. Look up in the Poconos.”


I called Mimi Fariña instead. Gravity’s Rainbow is dedicated to her late husband, Richard Fariña, who was at Cornell with Pynchon and who died in 1966 two days after his brilliant first novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, was published.

“I knew him briefly ten years ago. Being a non-reader, I guess I don’t have much to say about him. He does exist, and is very tall, has beautiful eyes and a black mustache, and thinks he looks like Bugs Bunny.”

I beg your pardon?

“See, he has big teeth. He thinks they make him look like Bugs Bunny. He doesn’t, he just thinks he does. He was very bright, I guess, but so withdrawn that it would be hard to put an exclamation point after him, if you know what I mean. He was just a tall, thin man who was extremely sincere.

“I guess I could find him if I wanted to, but it would take a long time and a lot of old address books that I don’t want to go back to.”

“Did it surprise you that Gravity’s Rainbow was dedicated to Richard Fariña?” I asked.

“No. I mean, I guess you dedicated a book to family or to close friends, and they were very tight.”

“For a long time?”

“He was best man at our wedding, and a pallbearer at my husband’s funeral. I haven’t seen him since then.”

I was sorry for her, sorry to have spoiled her perfect California morning with thoughts of death and a future that didn’t unfurl, and a friend of her husband’s who never called again.


The dreams continued.

A lady I know came up to me and said, “I know where he has his hair cut.”

“Where?” I asked, knowing whom she meant.

“Think of the most dazzling, the most cosmopolitan city you know of.”

“Dallas, Texas,” I replied, without hesitation. I have never been to Dallas, never thought about it much.

“Exactly. Look in Dallas.” She smiled and faded.


Everything began to seem infinitely detailed. The smallest gesture, the least meaningful sign would catch my eye as if it were all happening just for me, had been put in front of only my eyes. Everything in the present, all systems operating simultaneously in the front of the mind, spreading layer after layer of infinitely textured life in front of you. The quiddity of life, these details all we have, the only signposts pointing in any direction, and these blurred and contradictory.

Once, in a restaurant in Charlottesville, Virginia, I picked up a small table card which advertised a drink called Black Velvet, equal parts of Guinness and champagne.

Inside the card someone had written, in mannish handwriting with a blunt and spittle-softened pencil, “The interiors of life are always surprising, but seldom awfully interesting.”

I carried that little card with me for years in my wallet, always thinking, at every bar, that I really ought to order a Black Velvet, a drink made of equal parts of two drinks which I loathe.


Everybody told me not to call Candida Donadio. She’s like a little pickup truck with a hard heart, one told me, and she won’t tell you anything besides.

But there was nowhere else to go. Candida Donadio is more connected to Pynchon, publicly, than anybody else. She has been his agent for years, and while she has given some maddening interviews in which she has said that Pynchon has never been to her office, that his manuscripts are delivered by “a special messenger from God Almighty,” she must know him, she must have seen him. She handles his money, whatever Irwin Corey says, and she must know where he is.

And, as it turns out, she loves to talk about Thomas Pynchon, who walked into her office, aged 24, with the manuscript of V. in his hand.

“Wasn’t he living in Mexico then?”

Pause. “No, he wasn’t in Mexico.” She is extremely careful with details and, while she talks with ease, it is difficult to tell whether Candida is being candid or merely cunning. She is certainly good at fanning the flames she is ostensibly quenching, and it stand to reason. The myth may be over blown. It may hide a much simpler and more mundane truth than it would seem to , but Candida Donadio knows quite well that both she and Pynchon stand to make money from the myth.

“I love Tom Pynchon very much,” she said in her deep, quasi-oracular voice, a voice with the sound of a heavy stone being dropped down an extremely deep well, the sort one might climb down at noon to see if the stars were visible.

“He is remarkable. He is charming and polite. He lives very much in the world. He has friends. He has laughs. He has been the most extraordinary experience in my life.

“He is extremely generous with information, and if he needs some little bit of knowledge he’ll research it for two years. How can I describe to you how brilliant he is? Just believe me when I say that he is rare, an extremely rare critter, the kind that comes along once in a thousand years. Leonardo da Vinci. That’s the kind of genius he is.

“He reads an overwhelming amount, but the truth is, with him, the reading experience becomes somehow the life experience. That’s what Georges Roditi said when he called me up at 8:30 in the morning, after staying up all night with V., ‘But Candida,’ he said. ‘But exactly the street. But exactly the color of the houses. He could not know.’ But he does know.

“I’ll tell you a story. I know a lot about houses, and Tom called me up one day because he wanted to know all about bricks, about what the color of bricks was called. I said that the best, the finest bricks in America have a color which is called “Philadelphia Rose” because all the houses in Society Hill are that particular color, and because the color comes from a special clay which is only found on the banks of, what is that river there? The Schuylkill. So Tom goes and reads everything he can find about bricks and brick houses. Then he goes to Philadelphia, so he can see the houses in Society Hill, and he goes to the riverbank to see where the clay comes from, and takes a sample of it so he can analyze what makes it different from the clay used to make ordinary bricks. All this so he could use the phrase with assurance, so he could know exactly what he meant by it.”

She asked me how I had looked for Pynchon, and I ended up telling her about the psychic, whom she said was all wrong, although she thought the man may have been reading one of Pynchon’s other, previous lives. Hard to say. There was a place near the sea, she said, but not anymore. He never drinks. He has never been in the hospital. But the depression part, well, that was true. Pynchon is often subject to fits of severe depression.

“Sometimes I’ll get the feeling of a great sadness over him, and he’ll call and say, ‘Candida, I had my head in the oven.’ Once I had a vision of him, and he called, and I told him of it. ‘I see you sitting on a kitchen floor. The kitchen is gray. It is 4:10 in the afternoon. Your glasses are broken. There is a Band-Aid near your left eye. You are sitting on the floor reading the I Ching.

“There was a long pause, silence on the other end of the telephone. Finally he said, ‘Tell me what I threw.’

“The Well, I said, and he said yes, that was what he had thrown, in the gray kitchen at 4:10 in the afternoon.

“You can never find where he is,” Candida Donadio said. “He lives nowhere in the world. And he does it because he’s shy, painfully shy, and because he thinks his work is terrible. That’s why he refused the Howells Medal, because he doesn’t think he’s good enough. God forbid I should ever praise anything, ever say that anything he writes is good.

“I cannot imagine he is unaware of his gifts, but you can understand that whatever he writes, whatever he creates, he will never be able to match his inner vision, which is so vast, so intelligent.

“He is a scientist by nature. He understands things scientifically. He just chooses to make fiction of what he understands. He has a total gift, and total goodness, and he is always, always totally honorable.”

I told her that people had said sweet things about him, and repeated what Faith Sale had said. “The Sales haven’t seen Pynchon in four years. Something went on there. Pynchon has an enormous heart, and he got hurt in some way. Faith calls me up to ask how Tom is, and to ask why they never hear from him.”

Faith Sale had told me that she and Pynchon had argued, she had mentioned a fight about Pynchon’s use of the word “moiré” as a verb, a quirky thing he does an unusual number of times in Gravity’s Rainbow. But it seems a slim excuse to vanish out of a 20-year friendship. I told Candida Donadio that a lady I had met had had drinks with Pynchon and Barthelme at the Sales no more than a year before.

“Impossible,” was the reply. “The Sales haven’t seen him, his parents haven’t seen him. They all call me up to find out how he is.” But there was in her voice a vague disquiet, as if there were things going on of which she was unaware, as if Pynchon had broken some sort of trust by leading a life not necessarily led through her. An intriguing puzzle, I said.

“You have to realize, I live with the puzzle.” Candida Donadio, deep voice on the phone, the lady who knows what nobody else even imagines, who pulls the strings. V, the point at which parallels converge.


At a dinner party, I said I was looking for Pynchon, and the woman sitting across from me smiled.

“I know where he lives,” she said. “He lives in the same building as Michael di Capua.” Di Capua is an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. According to the woman they lived in the same brownstone, and the year Pynchon won the N.B.A., di Capua could not resist the ultimate one-upmanship of knowing where the mystery resided. She wrote the address on a scrap of paper, and I told her what the editor had said, long before. Find somebody who hates somebody know knows.

“Well. There you have it. I had Michael di Capua,” she said, turning back to her asparagus soup.


Three days after my conversation with Candida Donadio, my phone rang at a quarter to ten. It rang once, then stopped. The next night, at a quarter to ten, I got it on the first ring. There was nobody on the line. Every night for two weeks the phone rang at exactly the same moment, just one time, and I would pick it up to a dead line, knowing, even as I lifted the receiver, that there was no one there. Perhaps, I thought, only a malfunction in a too-vast system, some cyclical synapse that cause my phone to ring every evening when the house is still. Perhaps that’s it.


I walked down to Pynchon’s house, turned onto the block shaking, passed by the pale red-brick house several times before I got up the nerve to go up the steps.

Of course, his name wasn’t on the mailbox. I hadn’t expected it would be.

I sat on the steps across the street. It was a hot afternoon and the windows glinted with a burned-out stare.

Somebody later asked me if it looked like the sort of house Pynchon might live in. I answered, “Look. Imagine yourself searching for the Holy Grail. You’ve sacrificed everything, your children have been slaughtered because you never sent the money to have the drawbridge fixed, you’re getting old sleeping in mossy riverbeds, your wife is sleeping with your best friend and you’re just about to pack it all in, but there you are, kneeling wearily, waist-deep in the old primeval, and voice comes out of heaven saying, ‘O.K., here’s your damned Grail, if you want it so much then,’ and a cup appears before you, floating in the sky. At such a time, what you do not say is, ‘Well, that’s very nice. But could I maybe see something with handles on it?’”

In the afternoons, I would sit in front of his house, or in the park nearby, where I watched young girls sunning themselves, watched the endless parade of joggers, saw once a very drunk couple fight and kiss sloppily on the steps of a church.

I sat in the park, looking for a tall thin man with beautiful eyes and a big black mustache who looked like he thought he was Bugs Bunny. You would be surprised how many people fit that description.

There I was, frozen in the heat, unable to walk up the steps and ring the bell, afraid, I suppose, to find either that the mystery did not exist or could be solved.


One night I went to the theater. Afterwards, I sat in a garden for a long time with a very pretty woman in a peach-colored summer dress, and then she went away and I went home to bed where I could not sleep. Two o’clock in the morning, lying there sweating and thinking about Pynchon. I live on a street filled with hookers and cheap hotels, and I went to the window to catch some breeze and stood one-legged like a Bantu, watching it all.

I hate living there. It’s hot and it’s noisy and the warehouses across the street block out most of the sun and block all the breeze but sometimes, when it’s two in the morning and the street is slick with oil and drizzle, my block has a certain perverse fascinations. I used to live very much alone, and I would think of couples I had seen in the subway, and the thought would always occur to me, what do they do? Well, my block can show you an awful lot of what some of them do.

A woman sat in a a halter top in the front seat of a brown Cadillac, reading fashion magazines by the glow of the streetlight that hissed from the heat and the rain. The whores tottered out into the street in their five-inch heels to stop traffic and dicker, or to go across the street and chat with their pimps, sartorial marvels who sat up all night drinking cheap wine on the steps of cheaper hotels. One of the whores on my street is over six feet tall. One is pretty. Most are neither.

A car drove by, the boy driving with one hand and masturbating with the other, gazing out through the fogged windows at the whores who darted out at him as he drove past.

Rabbit, who runs a shoeshine parlor, hammered nails into his shoeshine stand, as the rain soaked his back and his bad leg.

There was a terrible fight. Two gay junkies standing in the middle of the street, flailing away at each other with the petulant, frightened smacks that nevertheless could hurt. One man had broken glasses, the other a bloody nose.

The fight was about a TV set. The junkie with the bloody nose had been thrown out of one of the hotels. He had left the room in such haste that he forgot his TV set. “It don’t work anyway,” he screamed at the taller man who was smacking him in the face, his hand drawing back each time bright with blood.

“That don’t matter, Morty. You stupid queer. We can fix it, when we get home. We can maybe sell it. Now you go and get that goddamned TV, or you ain’t coming home with me, and then where would you go? You ain’t got nowhere, faggot.”

“But I don’t want to go back in there.” He was crying now. Smack. A paper bag full of old copies of the Daily News burst open. Papers flew all over the street, under the wheels of the cars that passed inches from where the two were fighting.

Smack. Smack. Smack, and me standing there in the dark, no better than they, no better than any of them, spending my days making fictions, for God’s sweet sake, and not looking much out the windows. The one with the bloody nose went back into the hotel. Seconds later he was carried out by two heavies, and beaten and smacked until he fell to his knees on the sidewalk, punch-drunk. His friend turned from gathering his newspapers, ran and threw himself into the melee, breaking his glasses beyond repair, screaming, creating just enough of a diversion so that the first man could race through the doors, retrieve his TV set and dash to safety. The two young men, in torn clothes dripping with rain, were left alone in a street filled with the smell of blood and hot saki. They circled each other warily, as if there were still some fight left in hem somewhere. Then they fell on each other, hugging and kissing, patting dank pages from the Daily News to bloody noses, trying, with trembling fingers, to reassemble the glasses that were broken forever, embracing like any teenaged couple at a junior-senior prom. Then, both twitching so badly they couldn’t do a balancing act on a two-lane blacktop, they walked hand in hand down to Sixth Avenue where the cabs would go by, sooner or later, and they would go home to love and injections.

Pynchon is right, I thought. The world is what he says it is.


I dreamed Pynchon was in a very white hospital, lying in a hospital gown, his dark hair long against cruelly white, crisp pillows.

Pynchon got out of bed, closed the door to the room. I asked him my riddle. He was very affable, smiled and replied, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. Something about keeping an “irony in his pants pockets.” I asked him to repeat it, and he did but it did no good, the words were still lost to me.

He wrote down the answer on a piece of paper; I couldn’t read the handwriting. He gave me the answer printed on little cards, in various sizes and languages, and the words turned fluid and ran before my eyes.

He lay back on his pillow, tired. He became a woman, became a man again, became, in the end, a little of both. I touched his forehead very softly with my fingertips, and it was cool to the touch, not fevered.

It doesn’t matter, I said. Rest.


I called Candida Donadio. “Will you have lunch with me?”

“Why?” she answered warily.

“Well, I don’t know. All these voices—you, the Sales, Mimi Fariña, Irwin Corey, Cornell. I feel like I’m drowning in a sea of anonymity. I just need to see one face, in the flesh.”

There was a long pause while she lit a cigarette. “Tomorrow. Twelve-thirty at my office.”

I would wear a black shirt and try to look compelling. Perhaps were faith was failing me, charm would succeed.


That afternoon, in Pynchon’s park, I thought how useless it all was, how fragile, how borrowed. It was a fantasy of youth, the finding, and I would not find in him what the psychic had told me to look for, what Pynchon himself had called “the nulltime of human love.” He would not, dreamlike, extend a magic hand to touch my forehead and place light there. Far better to look for myself, to look for those parts of myself scattered through he years over various landscapes, in various hearts now lost to me. Far better, even, to look for my old friend Peter, whom I had last seen straddling the thin line of his own innate goodness and a borrowed, but extremely possible, slide into a drugged and visionless sadness.

Peter whom I had lost, the way one loses one’s college friends, through distance and apathy, whom I realized much later I had loved because his heart was good, and whom I maybe wanted to sleep with, once, I couldn’t remember anymore. Peter who had appeared to me on many days in five countries, often in pain, often in need of a friend, who seemed to hold some sort of key to what I had once been and could not get back to. Look for love, the man had said. Look for Peter, a Voice now answered.


She is a small, heavy woman with the face of a Sicilian child, topped with a Risorgimento hairdo. We shook hands, hers flashing with two small rings, and ate in an Italian restaurant where the headwaiter knew her and seated us with deference.

After her first vodka Gibson she said, “He never lived in that house. I lived there, and once Larry Woiwode stayed there, working, because he was having, for very real reasons, trouble finishing a book. But Pynchon never lived there. Live right under somebody who works in publishing, the Pynch? Never.

“I can’t help you much. I can’t tell you anything, but I can steer you clear of misinformation and lies. What else do you know?”

I knew I would tell her, and that it would all be lies and wrong directions. I wanted to believe that Pynchon himself was somewhere in the restaurant, but I knew that he wasn’t. I wanted still to believe that he lived in the brownstone with the pleasant park nearby, walking his dog on summer evenings, but I knew that he did not.

Young Stencil looks for V. for 11 years and comes up with a handful of dust and slow fade into the Mediterranean. I didn’t have that kind of time.

“Look. You want specifics? Tom Pynchon once met Donald Barthelme on a street corner. They went to a bar. Pynchon ordered a Campari and soda, your drink.” Thinking about it later, I figured it was because he was embarrassed to order a Shirley Temple.

The talk turned to other writers, to how the young cannot write a novel now, because they’ve seen to much, been trampled on too much, and must wait for 35 before they will begin to be able to recollect the passions of their youth in the tranquility of their middle years; and to Italy where we both had lived, strolling the streets which Pynchon describes but has never seen.

“Once I was there with Dianne,” I said. “We were to stay seven days. But on the third morning, I woke up and she was crying, very softly so as not to wake me. I was irritated by her tears. She cried to early in the mornings by then, and the weeping was always followed by a morning of recrimination, and I sort of sharply asked her why she was crying.

“’Because it’s so sad,’ she said. ‘Venice. It’s so sad.’ And I knew exactly what she meant, the putti all had these little stubs for fingers, syphilitic noses, blind eyes. It was all so sad. So we left for home.

“She cried all the way up the Grand Canal. She cried at the window for tickets. She sat in the train compartment, crying.

“Then there was some terrible mix-up with the tickets, so I had to go out into the hallway to discuss it with the ticket man. And naturally a crowd of men all gathered around, the way they do in Italy, and we smoked our cigarettes and the mistake was straightened out and duly written down, and the conductor told me I spoke Italian very well; he could tell I was from Florence by my accent. The we all finished our cigarettes, and shook hands, and I turned to go back into the hot compartment. He asked me to wait a minute, while all the men strained to see Dianne who had shaved off her eyebrows, it was la mode that year, so that even her weeping had a look of continued surprise.

“’We have just one question,’ said the conductor, and all the men looked a me as if I had done some terrible thing to her.

“’One question, signore. Why is that beautiful girl crying?’”

“’She’s crying,’ I said, ‘because Venice is so sad. Because Venice makes her cry.’”

“’Oh, yes,’ said all the men. ‘Certo. Now we understand. Venice is so sad.’ And then they all went away, mopping their faces with handkerchiefs so clean you knew their mothers had washed them, and the train moved south. Dianne stopped crying after awhile and read fashion magazines the rest of the way.”

“What a lovely story,” Candida Donadio said. “You should write a short story about that someday.”

Well, maybe I will. When I’m 35.

The bill came, and she took it,. I tried to pay but she said no. “We’ll make the Pynch pay for it. I’ll charge it to his account.”

This man who had haunted my dreams for six months, she calls him The Pynch.

I asked her one more question. “If you wanted to find Pynchon today, to talk to him, could you do it?”


“This week?”


I had told Candida Donadio how everything seemed bizarre and a little sad ever since I had begun to look for Pynchon. As we got up to leave the restaurant where Pynchon had bought me lunch, a man at the table behind us suddenly turned to his two friends, this was on their third or fourth drink and no real lunch anywhere in sight, and he said in a loud, aggressive voice that caught the ears of the whole restaurant, “Well, what the fuck’s she got to smile about…? The woman’s dying, for God’s sakes.” “See what I mean?” I said to Candida, who laughed, but understood perfectly.


I found my friend Peter in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. He is an engineer now. I thought of Pynchon’s father, and of Rimbaud’s letter from Africa: “…what is the use of all this indescribable suffering, if I’m not one day, after a few years, to rest in a place that I more or less like, and have a family of my own, a son at least, whom I shall spend the rest of my life in training according to my own ideas, providing him with the best and most complete education which can be obtained today, and whom I’ll see grow into a famous engineer, a man rich and powerful through science. But who knows how long I may last in these mountains here; I may lose my life amongst these people, without any news of me ever coming out again.” Who know how long any of us?

“I want you to know,” I said to Peter, “that this story is a little bizarre. But I want you also to know that it is no more bizarre than it seems on the surface. There is nothing to it but what I am going to tell you.

“After graduation, Dianne and I went ot London, and live in a rented room. Walking down Sloane Street one day, I thought of you, and it was pleasant. In the subway, all the way home to Putney, I thought about you, and for three days after that, constantly, night and day.

“The feelings came back every month or so for the next five years, as if you were walking beside me, seeing what I was seeing, talking to the girls I met in cafes.

“After awhile, you weren’t just with me, you were often in trouble. I used to walk through Piccadilly and see the junkies linking up for the government methadone, and I hate the faces because I was sure one of them would be you.

“I thought about you because I hoped so much that things would be all right. I thought about you because I realize that…that I loved you, because you had the best heart of anyone I knew at school. I know that the information is of no value to you know, but I think of you because I have loved you, because you were good at heart. It’s as simple as that.

“And all these years later, I wanted to ask you two questions. Did it turn out well, or badly? And are you, after all, happy?”

The sunset gave his skin the color of Florence in the spring, lit up, the tight Italian body that played lacrosse every season, the beautiful neck, the eyes a little afraid against his pale smooth skin. I loved him and I did not want him. That was important to know.

Peter was quiet for a long time before he spoke. “I have turned out to be the kind of man my mother and father would be proud of, and I guess that means something to me….I guess that means something.

“As for being happy…no. I’m not happy. Safe job, safe little life. If not completely legal, at least a little more than just this side of the law.

“My father’s sister died. He took it badly, and it suddenly occurred to me that he will die someday. I will be the oldest male, and I feel like I can’t get free of my father, he will not let me have my own life, will not ever…let me be….free.

“I don’t expect my life to reach some plateau of ecstasy and stay there. Once I might have believed that, but not anymore. There will just be more ups and downs.” He put on his shoes stood up, and we drove into Philadelphia for dinner at a cheap lobster house.

There’s not much now that one man can do for another. The issue of affection is much too confused and we may never find the proper balance again. So we are left with secret greeds, and not much in the way of comfort.

Driving home, the New Jersey Turnpike was black as the soot that covers it, it was three o’clock in the morning, June, hot night blowing fire across the flats and the eternal flames that will burn long after they have choked the air out of us snapped like flags in the wind.

In the dawn, the whores even gone home to bed, I knew one thing. I had found a friend again and he had not died. The road taking me to Pynchon had taken me to something that more properly belonged to me, something I had needed without knowing it: one quiet moment face to face with a simple affection.

I had learned this from Pynchon and Peter: We do have to grow old, but we do not have to grow as cynical as the years in which we age. And the heart is capable of more than spastic jerks in the electric chair of New York City.


No. I did not find Thomas Ruggles Pynchon. He is too well hidden. He is too agile, too delicate to pursue with a vengeance. But I did have one more dream about him, recently.

I received a letter, very formal, very charming. It was typed on graph paper, the paragraphs widely spaced and not indented. The letter said: “The weather out here is fine, the sky deep blue, not a cloud in sigh….” At the beginning of the letter, Pynchon said he had heard I wanted to know the answer to a riddle, and so he would put the answer at the end. I read on, but was arrested by one sentence. “The world,” he said, “gives nothing.” I could read no further, but sat down and wrote a reply.

“The world, my dear man, gives all there is.”


It comes with the territory that merely setting out on The Quest will not bring The Answer, or much comfort. The world is too full, changing too fast. Molecules change, habits, addresses, our fingerprints spreading and blurring while we sleep.

But if you set out to find something, you will find something. That is certain. And there is a chance that what you will find will be of value. A quiet lunch, a hot afternoon in a park to which you would not have gone to read the Post and watch the girls, a name, a street, a thousand streets falling toward the river in the rain like a long silver stairway to nowhere, the chance connections which tell you that the mess of insomnia and cocaine through which you walk is, miraculously, your own life.

It is possible to learn that the point at which the parallels converge is yourself, a point of reality running with perfect synchronicity with your life as it passes, with your happiness may be transient, so is sorrow. Both are equally weighted and equally possible.

And some night, when you think you cannot go on but know you will, it may occur to you that what awaits you is a rare joy, an individual ache that tells you that this sunset is unseen by others, this sea unsailed, this language inarticulate in the mouths of others.

I try to believe that. It comes and goes, but I try. Life is always sad, and sometimes the sadness has a name. The dream of Pynchon stopped. Dead, so to speak, and I went off to a summer in Europe where, for the first time in my life I drank too much.


Oh, the riddle. Page 168, Gravity’s Rainbow.

Q: What did the cockney exclaim to the cowboy from San Antonio?

A: •

Summer Reading: A Few Small Suggestions (and One 850-Page One)

Today’s Chicago Sun-Times has a lengthy list of summer reading suggestions, built on what the book section’s contributors are most looking forward to reading. My pick:

Exiles in the Garden by Ward Just (July 7): No novelist is more sensitive to the different moods of different cities than Just — his 2004 novel, An Unfinished Season, is a modern classic set in Chicago — so I’m eager to see how Vietnam War-era D.C. comes across in Exiles.

I could have gone on, and not only about Just, who deserves to be on the short list of great living American writers but has somehow failed to become a household name among the folks who care about such things. (It may be that Just is perceived as a “writer’s writer,” smart but esoteric, but that’s a limiting, unfair assessment. He’s highly readable, and even his Washington novels aren’t sunk in wonkishness.) There are plenty of books I’m either excited about reading or finishing, or which I’ve eagerly recommended to people in recent months. Among the 2009 books I’d suggest for the beach bag are Robert Goolrick‘s A Reliable Wife, an entertainingly sinister tale of a love triangle in the Wisconsin wilderness; Gary Indiana‘s The Shanghai Gesture, a riff on old-fashioned Fu Manchu stories whose satire cloaks some genuinely felt concern about current-day helplessness in the face of globalization; George PelecanosThe Way Home, another morality tale about a neglected corner of D.C. life, this time the products of juvenile correctional institutions, that’s bolstered by its precise characterizations and Pelecanos’ increasingly stripped-down style; Simon Van Booy‘s Love Begins in Winter, a collection of elegant, ghostly, yet never melodramatic love stories set in Stockholm, Las Vegas, Quebec City, and other far-flung settings; Charlie HaasThe Enthusiast, an easygoing comic novel about an editor in the curious world of niche magazines; and Yoshihiro Tatsumi‘s A Drifting Life, a magnificent sprawling memoir from the manga pioneer that explores the nature of creation, the business of art, and the frustrating path to self-awareness. (At 850-plus pages, that last one probably won’t work well for the beach bag, which probably speaks to my lack of knowledge about what works well for the beach. I’ve never been much for the outdoors.)

Like a couple of my Sun-Times contributor colleagues, I’m looking forward to Thomas Pynchon‘s Inherent Vice (though there’s plenty of Pynchon I’d like to get to before that one), but I’m just as interested in Colum McCann‘s portrait of New York City in the early 70s, Let the Great World Spin, Lisa See‘s Shanghai Girls, Glen David Gold‘s Sunnyside, Kevin Canty‘s story collection Where the Money Went, the re-publication of Rudolph Wurlitzer‘s 1968 cult novel, Nog, and Richard PowersGenerosity: An Enhancement. That last one doesn’t come out until October, but that’s the funny thing about book reviewers—one of the best things about summer is looking forward to the books that come out in fall.

Wisconsin Depth Trip

I’ve just finished Robert Goolrick‘s debut novel, A Reliable Wife, which may not have been the best choice for airplane reading—its themes of perpetual deception and impending death doesn’t mix well with white-knuckling. But it does draw you in, and if its series of abuses, lusts, poisonings, and general debauchery occasionally seems over-the-top, Goolrick has a fearsome command, and his narration is a fine fit for the story he’s telling—simple but with a slightly demonic touch, like an issue of Tales From the Crypt written by Ernest Hemingway.

Actually, you don’t have to guess at the book’s genuine inspiration, which Goolrick discusses in an afterword, and in a recent Publishers Weekly interview:

I am largely uncomfortable with contemporary fiction. And I wanted to write a novel that had a great story and I started to think of it with the final scene of the novel—the scene in which the garden comes to life. It seemed to me a metaphor for redemption, so I needed a bleak landscape in which that scene would be miraculous. I thought of Wisconsin, which I used to visit quite often on business when I was in advertising, and then I’ve always held Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip very dear to my heart. I think it’s a brilliant book. And so I leafed around that book for probably the 500th time and decided to set it there. His book is set in 1896; I wanted it to be a little later, so there would be electricity and automobiles—a little more modern life.

If you grew up a horror fan—or, in my case, were friends with one growing up—you probably know about Wisconsin Death Trip, which had the sure-fire ability to creep you out without dealing in blood and guts. Words were enough. Lesy’s approach was to set longer stories about the brutality of Wisconsin life against Twitter-brief items from newspapers like this: “The 60 year old wife of a farmer in Jackson, Washington County, killed herself by cutting her throat with a sheep shears.” Add in black-and-white photographs of babies in coffins or headshots of people you knew later became murderers, and voila—nightmares for weeks.

If you care to revisit all this online, the Google Books version of Wisconsin Death Trip includes the words but not the photos; the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Web site has the photos but not the words.