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Meet Your Neighbor, Thomas Pynchon

With just a few keystrokes, New York was able to learn that Pynchon's neighborhood is a bustling, civil, and prosperous one, with good subway access. In the vicinity of his building, there's a discount department store, a bagel shop, a church. At the corner, a man with a fruit-and-vegetable stand sells broccoli and bananas.

The building itself is stately, if gritty. It could use a sandblasting. A rumpled doorman sits on a folding chair by the entrance, watching the people outside pass. Pynchon's neighbors are of various ages, races, states of fashion-consciousness. There's a man who comes and goes expertly in a motorized wheelchair. The neighborhood is New York at its finest: tolerant, navigable, sane. It's the New York that could almost lull one into believing that broader American myth, the one Pynchon warns against in his fiction: All is right with the world.

In Pynchon's world, there are protectors, people who attempt to create a ring of fire around what is, ultimately, a banal secret: He's here, and aside, perhaps, from what's going on in his brain, he seems to lead an unremarkable life—or at least the life of any number of New York's literary gentlemen of a certain age. But knowing Thomas Pynchon, or even knowing of him, has taken on a talismanic resonance with a particular sort of crowd ("There are people out there from the New Yorker magazine!" quoth Woody Allen's wife in Annie Hall, in a similar mood). Questions from reporters can lead to an instantaneous defensiveness on behalf of the author.

"I'm not going to talk about this man," says Ray Roberts, Pynchon's editor at Henry Holt.

"I cannot speak about this matter," says literary critic Harold Bloom. (There's a story that Bloom and his buddies at Cornell once inducted young Pynchon into their alternative fraternity, Yud-Yud-Yud, also known as Tri-Yud or Gefilte Phi.)

"If he hasn't asked for publicity, then he doesn't deserve it," says David Streitfeld, who nevertheless fingered Newsweek columnist Joe Klein as the anonymous author of Primary Colors on page 1 of the Washington Post. "Joe Klein," he says, "was a different issue."

Phil Patton, a writer for Esquire who admits to being Pynchon's friend, wouldn't comment on the fellow, either. It's not that he was ever asked not to. "It's unclear how it got started," he says. "I've never had anyone discuss it with me. There's no grand conspiracy."

"He's disappeared, and no one will ever find him, because that's how he wants it," says a man walking past the entrance to Pynchon's building.

Still, it's an amazing feat for Pynchon to have maintained his privacy in this big, buzzing city, where gossip has 747 wings. It makes you think there's more behind the silence than just the ultimate insider cachet of being "down" with the quintessential mystery man. "The only thing I can guess is that those who meet him like him," ventures Paul Gray, book critic for Time. "They know that if they go running to "Page Six," they probably won't get to see him anymore."

There are, however, stories, always told anonymously (for their own protection, the tellers say, against the wrath of the Pynchon protectors) and with a sense of astonishment as to their sheer mundanity. As it turns out, the truth about Thomas Pynchon is much less strange than his fiction:

"Someone was telling me he went on a picnic with Pynchon and his wife and kid," says one magazine writer who lives here. "He said, 'We walked around'—whatever. It was 'In the Suburbs With Thomas Pynchon.' "

"He was at a Sag Harbor literary party several years ago," says another writer. "He seems like a normal guy."

"Somebody I know was at a dinner party with him. Susan Sontag was there too," says a magazine editor. "He was seen at an outdoor café having lunch with Don DeLillo," another writer says.

"They [Pynchon and his wife] don't go out a lot," says a literary agent. "They're like a regular couple."

"It may be easier to be private than anyone thinks," Patton says.

New York may in fact be the perfect place for Thomas Pynchon, the city where he was meant to live all along. Pynchon started out in New York, or in the environs, and in a sense he has come full circle. He was born in Glen Cove, Long Island, the son of a superintendent of highways for Oyster Bay. (Thomas Ruggles Pynchon Sr. died last year, and Pynchon is said to have attended the funeral.)

At 16, Pynchon went to Cornell, where, classmate Jules Siegel recalled in Playboy in 1977, he was "quiet and neat" and "did his homework faithfully." "He went to Mass and confessed, though to what would be a mystery."

From 1955 to 1957, Pynchon served in the Navy and was assigned to the Sixth Fleet, which patrols the Mediterranean. There he became acquainted with Malta, which served as a backdrop for V. "It's not known why he left school and joined the Navy," says John Krafft, co-editor of Pynchon Notes. "He wanted to see the world? He had an unhappy love affair?"