The Mystery of Thomas Pynchon Leads Fans and Scholars on a Quest as Bizarre as His Plots

John Krafft’s modest house in a blue-collar Long Island neighborhood smells of baking apple pies. His guests—dressed in tweedy woolens—gather worshipfully around a cardboard box filled with 526 photocopied pages. A woman named Judith Lee lifts one precious sheet so close to her face it appears she is inhaling its fumes. She puts the page down and says, “It’s a Smith Corona electric typewriter, with bars, not a ball.” Within minutes she will change her mind three times, troubled by the poor quality of the copy.

Like the others in the room, Lee, an assistant professor of English at LaGuardia Community College, is an avid student of the reclusive American novelist Thomas Pynchon. All have been invited by Krafft, the co-editor of a 10-year-old journal called Pynchon Notes, to view an important new bit of Pynchoniana—a bootleg manuscript of Vineland, his long-awaited fourth novel, which arrived in bookstores this month.

It has been 17 years since Pynchon’s last novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, was hailed as an American classic and compared to the work of James Joyce and Thomas Mann. It has been nearly twice that long since the mysterious author has been recognized in public. The most recent photo of him dates from 1955, and the proceeds from his million-copy book sales and his 1988 MacArthur Foundation grant are forwarded by his publisher, Little, Brown, to an address that is the best-kept secret in publishing.

All Pynchon novels have this in common: a hero on a quest who assembles scraps of information, hoping to make a picture of the whole cloth. Though it could hardly have been his intent, Pynchon’s passion for anonymity has given rise to a small army of seekers who behave exactly the same way—except that their quest is for Pynchon. They seize on every scrap of biographical information and sift through endless rumors: that Pynchon is hiding because he is brain-damaged as a result of an LSD overdose, because he suffers from writer’s block, because the CIA is after him, or because he is ashamed of his Bugs Bunny teeth.

One literary private eye, novelist John Calvin Batchelor, claimed in 1976 to have “discovered” that Pynchon was in fact the long-silent novelist J.D. Salinger. Soon afterward he said he received a letter from Pynchon telling him he was wrong. Other stories have Pynchon being sealed inside a barrel and rolled into a wedding to avoid photographers, constructing a cocoon of engineering paper around his work space to ensure privacy when he worked at Boeing from 1960 to ’62, and responding to Norman Mailer’s invitation for a drink with a note saying, “No, thanks, I only drink Ovaltine.” Krafft, 38, an associate English professor at Suffolk Community College in Brentwood, N.Y., is a repository for all such Pynchon ephemera, which he keeps in meticulously ordered files. In an irony that Pynchon would appreciate, the Keeper of the Files is blind!

Krafft got hooked on Pynchon after Gravity’s Rainbow was read to him in college. “I was astounded by Pynchon’s language,” he remembers. “I had a very dramatic reader, and I kept asking her to reread the passages I loved. I associate words with colors, and although I have no basis of comparison, I think that hearing instead of reading allows me—maybe lulls me—into becoming so absorbed in the story that I lose my critical detachment.” Without difficulty, Krafft can rattle off every obscure recorded detail about Pynchon’s life and quickly pluck from his files such precious trivia as Pynchon’s Cornell University grades. Yet he claims that only Pynchon’s writing obsesses him. “If I learned that he was next door, I wouldn’t try to meet him. He might not be an interesting person. He might be shy. I’m not a fan,” he says. “I’m a scholar.”

Khachig Tölölyan, a professor at Wesleyan University who co-edits Pynchon Notes, is also quick to differentiate his interest from that of a mere enthusiast. “People collect relics from the saints and people collect stories about Pynchon,” he says. “It makes them feel close to something they value. Me, when I write articles about him, I get a salary increase.”

The known facts about Pynchon’s life are few. He was born in Glen Cove, Long Island, in 1937, the eldest of three children of an industrial surveyor. (His family is resolutely silent about him.) He joined the Math Club and the Spanish Club at Oyster Bay High School and was elected to the National Honor Society. (His column for the school paper, called “Voice of the Hamster,” surfaced in a Pynchon bibliography last year.) He entered Cornell in 1953 as an engineering physics major but graduated six years later, after a two-year hitch in the Navy, with a degree in English. (At Pynchon’s request, his Cornell transcripts were later sealed—though apparently not tightly enough, since several copies are in circulation.) By then his stories had appeared in college publications and the Kenyon Review. But the trail goes cold after he left Boeing, where he worked as a technical writer. (His December 1960 article in Aerospace Safety analyzing the dangers of moving missiles from one site to another is a prized collector’s item.)

Pynchon broke onto the literary scene in 1963 with his brilliant novel V., a witty tale of the quest for a mysterious femme fatale who may or may not appear at moments of historical crisis, disguised as a woman with the letter V in her name. V. received the William Faulkner First Novel Award. The plaque went unclaimed. Even then, Pynchon was writing his life in invisible ink.

“He did say to me that the only thing that mattered was the printed page,” says Corlies Smith, Pynchon’s former editor at Viking and one of the few who will break the seal of silence. “When I’ve seen him, he doesn’t wear a beard or a red wig. He’s not moving from one safe house to another. As far as I know, he leads a perfectly ordinary life. The fact of the matter is [his vanishing] has created much greater publicity than if he’d gone on Donahue.” Smith, who in 1983 had lunch with Pynchon—one of the last sightings anyone will talk about—offers this description: “He’s about 6’1”, rather gaunt, wears glasses, a big droopy mustache and longish hair. He’s not Paul Newman, but he’s not Quasimodo either”—which doesn’t exactly narrow it down.

Smith is amused by the imaginative leaps of Pynchon devotees. He recalls the time when the art department at Viking designed a pleasant pattern of seven boxes to serve as space breaks for Gravity’s Rainbow. Soon after, a scholar jubilantly proclaimed in Pynchon Notes that he had found the key to the novel—the seven boxes. “Pynchon hadn’t even seen them until the book came out,” Smith says, “But what really intrigued me was that the guy’s argument made perfect sense, even though it was completely false.”

Not all Pynchomanes—as the equally invisible Salman Rushdie termed them in his recent paean to Vineland on the front page of the New York Times Book Review-are academics. “I’m just a sucker for a good mystery, I don’t even understand all of his writing,” says Stephen Tomaske, 34, who joined the ranks 14 years ago when he was a cloth dyer in a Southern California knitting mill. “I get my information the old-fashioned way—libraries, letters and legwork.”

It was Tomaske who wrote to the Ford Foundation in 1988 requesting a copy of Pynchon’s 1959 grant application. He received by return mail a copy of the revealing four-page autobiographical sketch the 22-year-old Pynchon had submitted. (According to another source, Pynchon wanted the funds so he could compose a libretto for a science fiction opera.) When Tomaske wrote last year to Pynchon’s agent, Melanie Jackson, about publishing the document, he received no response. But the Ford Foundation suddenly sealed their records—”at Pynchon’s request,” says archivist Robert B. Colasacco. In the Pynchonian universe, Tomaske had what passes for a close personal encounter.

Like most fans, Tomaske denies he’s a fan. “I’m not a groupie,” he says. “I admire the guy. He can have a fender bender on the freeway, and it won’t hit the headlines. I like to think that he lives a cozy existence somewhere and he’s nicely insulated from folks like us.” Still, he writes letters to institutions—whose names he won’t reveal—looking for information to add to the thousands of note cards he keeps on Pynchon. What has he discovered? “I won’t tell you,” he says.

It all carries the familiar smell of a Pynchon plot: a private fan club, spawned by an anonymous figure, whose members pore over obscure private records, sweet-talk tax officials, stake out banks, obsessively trying to invent a man who obsessively refuses to reveal himself. Maybe Thomas Pynchon got the fan club he deserves.

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