May 19, 1997 12:00 PM

by Thomas Pynchon

In The kiss-and-Sell era of American writers who expect us to watch them pick at their own psychological scabs, Thomas Pynchon’s imaginative (if occasionally arcane) Mason & Dixon couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Pynchon’s epic—which displays an impressive knowledge of 18th-century astronomy, geography and history- tells the story of the British surveyors who traced the Pennsylvania-Maryland border in the 1760s and seeks to define today’s America via yesterday’s, in the tangy writing style of that bygone era.

He doesn’t always succeed, though. As anyone who has read John Barth’s more coherent 1960 novel The Sot-Weed Factor knows, this sort of tale has already been written—and written better. The 60-year-old Pynchon slows his narrative with term-paper grandstanding on America as the demon child of slavery and genocide, a tired notion that was no doubt cutting-edge when he began this project back in the 1970s. Pynchon is at his best, however, in a funny string of tall tales on the wonders of a nation aborning—giant vegetables, a love-struck mechanical duck—and cleverly interwoven cameos by everyone from a hemp-addled George Washington to Mr. Spock, Amy Fisher and Popeye. (Holt, $27.50

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