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Meet Your Neighbor, Thomas Pynchon


After graduating from Cornell in 1958 with a degree in English (he had started out in engineering physics), Pynchon was back in New York City, doing the beatnik thing. "Like others," Pynchon writes in Slow Learner, "I spent a lot of time in jazz clubs . . . I put on hornrimmed sunglasses at night. I went to parties in lofts where girls wore strange attire."

In 1959, Pynchon was awarded a fellowship to do graduate work at Cornell but passed it up. Instead, he got a job as a technical writer for Boeing in Seattle, writing V. in his free time. After that, he took off for Mexico. "There seems to have been the feeling that if he didn't start writing seriously, he was never going to do it," says Stephen Tomaske, a librarian at the University of California at Los Angeles and a dedicated Pynchon tracker.

Then in 1963 came a Faulkner Award, and then, that same year, the primal scene spawning Pynchon's reputation as a recluse. When Time magazine sent a photographer to Mexico City to take his picture, he supposedly hopped a bus headed into the mountains. An overgrown mustache he was wearing at the time fanned the legend that the locals took to calling him "Pancho Villa."

But if Pynchon has engaged in a life of actual chase scenes, it hasn't shown up—contrary to legend—in his addresses. He seems to have occupied only a handful of relatively long-term residences since the sixties: a couple in Berkeley; one in Manhattan Beach, California (where he wrote The Crying of Lot 49); one in Aptos, California (where he wrote much of Vineland). Through it all, he has maintained a quiet connection to the East Coast and to New York City, returning regularly to visit friends and check out the music scene. "He's a bicoastal kind of guy," Tomaske says.

Love brought Pynchon back to New York this time around, apparently. His wife, literary agent Melanie Jackson, worked here. They now have a small boy, Jackson, who attends a private school.

It's rumored Pynchon will do a book tour. "What would they do," asks a writer. "Put a bag over his head like he's in the witness-protection program?"

"At the beginning, he never declared his anonymity," says Edward Mendelson, a leading Pynchon critic. "It just grew."

Despite the continual tries of news outfits, Pynchon never granted an interview or agreed to have his picture taken. He never did Carson; he hasn't even done the 92nd Street Y. In 1974, when he won the National Book Award for Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon sent comedian and self-billed "expert on everything" Professor Irwin Corey to accept the prize on his behalf. Corey delivered a speech that was described by the New York Times as "a series of bad jokes and mangled syntax which left some people roaring with laughter and others perplexed."

"There's some circumstantial evidence," says Tomaske, "that Pynchon felt a growing dissatisfaction with the idea of the writer as celebrity. If Norman Mailer or Truman Capote picked up a pen, it had become news. And it struck Pynchon as unseemly."

"He is not at all disingenuous about it like Woody Allen, who says he's shy but then can be found at Elaine's with the Rolls-Royce parked outside," says literary agent Chris Calhoun.

There is also the possibility, however, that Pynchon split because he was concerned about the consequences of the political messages in his novels. He came of age during the McCarthy hearings, and the year V. was published, John F. Kennedy was shot. "Pynchon writes in a kind of code about the increasing role of government in subjugating the individual to the state," says Charles Hollander, an independent Pynchon scholar in Baltimore. "He and his writing are both camouflaged because he fears the power of the state."

"What are you always so afraid of?" Jules Siegel says he once asked his Cornell classmate; he had sensed a growing anxiety in Pynchon about what could be viewed as anti-Establishment ideas. "Don't you understand that what you have written will get you out of almost anything you can get yourself into?" But at the time, Pynchon was apparently unwilling to accept the idea that the power of celebrity could act as a safeguard against the government. (This was pre-O.J.)

Footsteps behind him. On passing the next street lamp, he saw the elongated shadow of helmeted heads bobbing about his quickening feet. Guardie? He nearly panicked: he'd been followed. . . .

"Go to hell," he said cheerfully.

—from V.

What more fitting a place to deliver those choice words than, again, New York City? "There's an old Russian saying," offers writer Andrew Solomon, "that if you want to hide from the authorities, stand underneath the brightest light, closest to the police station."

Ironically, Pynchon's refusal to assume a public persona has only fueled an image he may have never intended. "It works for him that he is a recluse," says Chris Calhoun. "I'm sure this is a coincidence, but it's very big business."

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