The Hamster

Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Jr.

A Man Born Through a Sea-Change From Out of An Oyster

In the mysts of the historical past, Pinco de Normandie didst cross the briny mare with William. Angleterre was their goal. Thereafter, as landed conquerors, they spawned sons. Pinco's boy was called Hugh, fils Pinconis -- later Hugh, fils Pynchonis, and Hugh Fitz Pincheun.
His family endured. By 1533, John Pynchon, son of the Sheriff of London, had obtained the family coat of arms in Essex.

Per bend argent and sable
Three roundels with a border
All counter changed--
The crest, a tiger's head erased argent.

But the Pynchons did not remain in England's green and pleasant land. Nay, they once again crossed the briny mare, this time with another William -- William Pynchon, that is. Vineland was their goal this time. There, Thomas Ruggles Pynchon would bear the name which would go on to endure for two more centuries and produce a motley and multifarious family which created books and ideas without number. Its legacy would include scientific enquiry and medical practice, subjects which mysteriously adumbrate the concerns of Mister Tom P., ca. 1960, the man who will be the main subject of our concern.
If you know him, then the Rev. Thomas Ruggles Pynchon's book The Chemical Forces: Heat, Light, Electricity . . . An Introduction to Chemical Physics (1870) will seem most significant to you. He taught chemistry, zoology, and theology at Trinity College, Hartford. (Just because there is a college in Dublin with the same name, don't jump to conclusions; and just because the Reverend's book bore the signature of Andrew Dixon White, first president of Cornell University, the very same university which matriculated our man Tom, don't make too much of it.)
But when you see a very real Dr. Schoenmaker in the Pynchon genealogy, one Dr. Edwin Pynchon (1856-1914), composer of Surgical Correction of Deformities of the Nasal Septum, you may legitimately begin to wonder and think of Esther in V. Rockets, planes, and Hawaiian lounges in the sky: they're all there. Was it mere co-incidence that Pynchon & Co., Brokers, published The Aviation Industry in 1928?
In the early 20th century, Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Sr., and Katherine Frances Bennett Pynchon, gave birth to three children: Judith, John, and Thomas Ruggles Jr., the boy who would be destined to become the greatest American writer since Herman Melville. On May 8, 1937, young Tom appeared. . . .
Crying "Rrrrr; rrrrr!!" he was born through a sea-change from out of an Oyster, appearing dark-eyed, and buck-toothed. They nevertheless dressed him in royal robes of purple and gold most regaliciously and then didst name him "Pynch." Behoved by his loyal supporters, he spoke. And his voice was the voice of the HAMSTER and his talk was of rockets, physics, and Fagiaduccis. . . .
His was a world of science and parody, irreverence in the name of understanding. Before he had graduated from high school, he had written -- because of his voice, no doubt -- the Life and Times of Hamster High. In the 1953 "Oysterette" yearbook, named after the place of his birth, Tom Pynchon is the best student, smiling proudly and displaying his hideously deformed incisors beside the lovely Mary Thompson, co-winner of the award. The photographer of the pair was a certain Mr Delilo, his name a homonym for Don's, the one attached to Ratner's Star and White Noise. More co-incidence, or a clear case of synchronicity? You decide.
It is, most sadly, perhaps the last picture we will see of Tom: "Pynch," member of the P & G; Yearbook; Trade Fairs 2,3,4; Honour Society 3,4; lover of pizza; disliker of hypocrites (as are we!); a man whose pet possession was a typewriter and who aspired to be a physicist when he grew up (wasn't he?!); proud member of the Math Club and El Circulo Espanol. It is as if he passed on willingly -- his books his only legacy other than that which he left Jimmy Donovan in the Senior Class Will: "his big vocabulary. . . ."
By the late 1950's, Pynch had become a late riser with bad dietary habits. Did you ever start your day merrily in the afternoon with a plate of spaghetti and a soft drink, a book on quantum mechanics at your side? He was at college, his alma mater being Cornell, where he learned of Lolita and Pnin from that master of expatriated melancholy, Vladimir Nabokov. To his teacher, he was naught but a pale fire which did not burn brightly, remembered only by the professor's wife because of his "unusual handwriting: half printing, half script." He'd moved from Engineering to the College of Arts and Sciences (what price the study of Physics?!), and he graduated with a BA in June, 1959, with distinction in all subjects.
His standards were high, his friends weird. He was closest to Richard Fariña, who looked something like his handsome younger brother. Pynch dedicated his masterwork to this man who staged the happenings which later appear, full-blown, I would say, in Vineland, his friend's picture of the Garden of Edenic Herbs being laid waste by the Godzilla of Government. . . . Short stories also came forth from the Oyster's bi-valve at that time, including several loosely connected tales about a picaresque character named Meatball Mulligan, of which only the perfect scientific quanta of Entropy survive. The big guns took note of Pynch, and he was offered the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to teach creative writing at Cornell. But the Faceless One (thank God we see his dentata no more!) declined.
The receding perspectives of V. beckoned -- the street which never ends. Naval service and beers with Pig Bodine, we can imagine, fitted in there somewhere, as well as travails in an only half-forgotten field: ENGINEERING!! 1960-62 saw work in Seattle with the Boeing Corporation, on the ill-fated Bomarc guided missile, the big firecracker dud buzz-bomb type winged lethal interceptor which was to have figured prominently in the true North strong and free (Canada's) part of the NORAD defence system. (Those who note the resemblance between a winged rocket carrying a bomb and the Doodlebug of WW II may be rewarded with a sumptuous feast of seafood here --something on the half shell, let us say?!) Pynch was an "Engineering Aide," a high-tech monk in a Boeing Corporation scriptorium, composing technical documents and performing the writing thereof. (The bibliographical data for one of his least famous documents is: "Togetherness." Aerospace Safety 16, No. 12 (December 1960): 6-8.)
Things were not long in taking off thereafter. V., terrible journey from the animate to the inanimate and back again, won the William Faulkner Foundation Award for best first novel in 1966. Then came Lot 49, Holy Crucible for the Holy Ghost, set in California. And finally, in 1973, the perfect stained glass mathematical function of Gravity's Rainbow. Called "obscene and unreadable," "turgid and overwritten," by the Pulitzer Prize Committee, it was a book which caused such controversy that no prize was awarded that year! And, almost as an afterthought, Pynch would write Vineland later, what some would call the precursor to The X-Files. (Gadzooks! Chris Carter is Pynchon, the Man, kept forever young by ingenious transplants of alien DNA!) But we all know GR will forever be our GRail (Ha Ha). . . .
The ellipsis was to be its architectonic (Viz. Daw, Laurence. "The Ellipsis as Architectonic in GR." Pynchon Notes 11 (February 1983): 54-56.), and its source might have been, crucially, an article in the Oyster Bay Guardian: July 2, 1954. "Hitler's Secret Weapon Displayed at Greenvale." The Vergeltungswaffe Eins (Vengeance Weapon No. 1) was displayed in a museum in Greenvale, a town on Long Island near Pynchon's home, one which could easily have been visited by him when he returned that summer from his Freshman year at college. Anyway, great or not, GR caused a gumbo-sized stir, and Pynch declined the Howells Medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters because of it. (It was the first recorded use of the term "No means No!") However, the Faceless One (No -- certainly not the toothless one!) did send a remarkable character named "Professor Irwin Corey" to accept the National Book Award on his behalf. . . .
Known in German as Die Enden der Parabel (1981) and in Spanish as El arco iris de la gravedad (1978), GR was created in cavelike rooms. Pynchon's only accessories were a cot, desk, and some homemade bookshelves with piggy banks and a book about swine on them, giving his working space an aura of monkish impermanence. Pynch was a tortured spirit who loved to hear a friend's wife sing a parody of Shirley Temple's "On the Good Ship Lollipop." The MS of the Masterwork was written in tiny script on engineer's quadrille paper. On one shelf, there was a model rocket constructed like one of Picasso's found objects -- a pencil-type eraser with a peelable corkscrew wrapper, a needle in its nose, and a launch pad made from a reformed paper clip. (Most of the information about this period of Pynchon's life can be found in Jules Siegel's seminal article "Who Is Thomas Pynchon . . . And Why Is He Taking Off With My Wife?", originally published in Playboy, March, 1977). The rocket waited, silently, to blast off into realms of speed, light, and distance so far removed from our ordinary experience that we might be led through them, past the Qlippoth, walking shells of the Dead, to the Other Side -- to the Source of Meaning itself. . . .
Or, we might not.
For Pynchon must by needs remain forever elusive, the Faceless One in every sense. Like his characters, we search, search, and search some more. Perhaps for him, perhaps forever. . . .

--Dr Larry Daw
21 May 2000


Names Changed to Protect
a Genius…

Ervin's dark eyes were almost as humorous as his normal attire. You must realize the time frame is the 1970's, about the time the Robert Altman film M*A*S*H starring Eliot Gould and a young Donald Sutherland was released. Ervin was also young, a 33 year old accomplished writer, living on 33rd Street in Manhattan Beach, California.

Figure 1. 33rd Street in Manhattan Beach, CA. I think this photo is looking up the hill and Ervin's place is almost directly across the street (left side) from the Spanish style tiled roof house where Veronica's relatives lived. Veronica lived with Ervin in his downstairs flat with the Dutch door. At any rate, you get an unchanged view of the street Ervin lived on for several years while working on his third massive novel. As I look into the photo, I believe the car on the left/bottom of the photo is in front of the duplex, but very possibly it is one duplex down. Ervin walked up this street almost every day to the market on Highland Ave.

I mention Eliot Gould because our friend Ervin looked very much like the actor at that time, with his big bushy head of black hair and a humongous drooping mustache, but, unlike Eliot Gould, Ervin was thinner and more lanky. He wore gold-rimmed spectacles that slid down to the end of a narrow nose with a flare at the nostrils. He also wore a lightweight, army-green jacket whenever he went outside his duplex and hiked up to the corner market to buy groceries. The guy who lived upstairs from Ervin worked for Lockheed, which explains a lot! He got Ervin a special pass to explore Lockheed's library, which was fascinating to him, of course.
The market was on north corner of 33rd Street and Highland Ave. If you stood on the north corner on the same side of the street, where our shy writer Ervin lived, you could look right down onto the blue Pacific Ocean. I say "look" in the present tense because the duplex is still there, as well as the old market. In fact, that little corner scene, with the old Laundromat, market and 33rd Street houses, duplexes and all, remain pretty much the same as they were when I roamed a long stretch of wide beach sidewalk called the Strand with Ervin. He once related a vivid dream he had in which the ocean was coming up the steeply inclined street devouring everything. I used to have similar dreams because I essentially grew up in Manhattan Beach. If you go back in history, the Manhattan Beach area we are picturing here was once just massive,
wind-swept sand dunes…

Figure 2. Looking down 33rd street, so Ervin's place is on the right. In the photo looking down the street you catch a glimpse of the blue Pacific, as I mentioned, the view which inspired the vivid dream Ervin had about the ocean coming up the street devouring everything in its path.

The first thing that would catch your eye when you entered Ervin's pad was all the pigs pinned and posted everywhere: pig posters, pig photos, pig paintings, pig pictures in the hall, pigs on the bathroom walls, pigs of every size and colour. There was also a large collection of very real piggy-banks! The walls were white and with all the pigs zooming in your head it was just simple fun and humour galore. Ervin's cramped desk sat in front of the west window, so that if you could looked out of you would catch a corner glimpse of ocean. In front of his Underwood (I'm pretty sure this was the model) typewriter was the normal assortment of supplies and materials one needs while writing. They were sticking out of different containers, and there were also a number of different reference books laying around. I recall watching Ervin type with four fingers and mocking him mildly, followed by his quick retort: "It isn't how fast you type, but the words you choose." He went on to add, "I tend to use long words…"
Ervin was always generous. He gave no hint of being a snit, a snob, or even a literati. When you knocked on the bottom half of the wood Dutch-door of his apartment (the top was normally open to the elements), Ervin would greet you with a genuine smile and fling the bottom half of the door open with a welcome "Hey, do you want a plastic soda?" as he strode towards the small kitchen. ("Plastic soda" was the unique and descriptive name he gave to commercially bottled soft drinks.) Ervin didn't drink alcohol at all when I knew him. He told me to many writers fell victim to drinking, but his generosity would send him up to the store to buy a bottle of wine if you desired.
Not only was Ervin open and generous, he also was somewhat protective of my youthful morals. I say this because while he was working on his third massive novel with all its layered transparencies, I noticed he was holding in hand a copy of Junky (1953) by William S. Burroughs. When I asked to look at the book. Ervin refused my request bluntly, but he was just trying to be kind, as if he were trying to preserve my innocence. He told me I wasn't ready for this kind of book. I caught a glimpse of the title and sometime later I read the sinister lines about anal fixations bent over in a public restroom with a bar of soap, getting a fix on patches of skin out of public view. Not only did I read the book, but had the occasion, about 30 years later, to smoke one with its old beady-eyed author, the man with a quirk of a smile and a quiet mien. Ervin had been right to protect my mind from the sordid depths!
I never saw Ervin smoke pot. He certainly chained smoked cigarettes, though, always apologizing with an added remark on how "He was going to give them up." There was some talk on what got Freud out of depressive moods. Ervin modestly defended Freud's position on the subject
He was definitely supportive of me wanting to be a writer. I wrote a sardonic short story about two twisted tyrants who rose from the dead to start an international brothel system. The prose style excited Ervin, and while he read the manuscript he made a few minor corrections of my treatment of Italian in a dialogue. He also looked up and said, "If you have some guy climbing the side of a mountain, how and when does he take a pee?" Then he went on to tell me that the characters he wrote about came alive late at night and made a big mess in the kitchen, leaving cigarette butts and bottles everywhere, which he had to clean up in the morning. He said this with such earnestness that I thought I heard them snoring in the back bedroom, recovering from the late night party.
Ervin was amused that I had used a travel guide for the backdrop in a scene that took place on the island of Malta. He said a professor once said that he never knew Ervin had spent time in North Africa. Ervin explained to the professor that he had never journeyed to Cairo, but instead had used an old 19th century travel guide for his scenes of intrigue.
He wanted to show my short story to his New York agent, but, before he had the chance, I rolled the manuscript up and set it on fire like a torch in the night as I bicycled nude down the main drag. Ervin had just paid the rent on my flat in Redondo beach to give me an opportunity to finish the piece. When I told him that it had all gone up in smoke, he wasn't upset, and he went on to say that destroying my work had tremendous positive connotations, telling him that I wasn't egocentric about my writing and could walk away from it any time I wanted.
How Ervin paid my rent gives good insight into the aura of absurd humour that prevailed around him. A mutual friend had popped in on him and, at Ervin's suggestion, they went off in the old yellow Valiant his grandmother (or aunt) gave him, to buy fifty bucks worth of pies. It was a mild rainy day. My buddy said they piled the pies in neat rows along the back window. Evidently, there was a dusty book by Ervin's grandfather or some relative on trigonometry laying on the back seat My buddy had an old-fashioned movie camera with him and took footage of the pie fight in the rain that ensued after they rounded up a few more locals for the fun. I have watched that movie-reel a hundred times since it was filmed. Here was our great literary man with pie in the eye giving out orders to everyone with Castro-like jeers! It was during the ride in the car that Ervin had asked how I was doing and our mutual buddy told him that I was behind in my rent.
When I knocked on his door later on that afternoon, Ervin invited me in but I didn't indicate how much I was down on my luck. Then, to my complete amazement, Ervin did several pirouettes in the middle of his living room, and with each turn I was handed a hundred dollar bill. At about five turns on his toes, he said "Is that enough?" I thought to myself, you've got to be kidding. I hadn't had that much money in my hand at one time ever! It seemed his generosity knew no bounds.
By contrast, he was extremely exacting about his writing techniques: "You know, Bruce, those high school biology texts with centerfold transparencies, first the skeleton, and then the muscles...well this is the technique I use for writing." Don't ask me to explain that statement, other than the reference to the layers. It also sounds almost like the way a wafer (silicon chip) is made: layer upon layer and each layer with encoded metallurgic pathways that spell out "yes" and "no" according to how the electrons interact on the subatomic level. (Forgive me. I am not a scientist or an electrical a picture here of how Ervin set words down layer upon layer, transparency upon transparency.)
He was a walking encyclopedia and could pull concise details out of the air on a whim or at the mere mention of a subject. Once, Ervin told me about a navigator who slipped around the southern tip of Africa, back when fashion had the look of buffoonery, and told me the captain's name, the purpose of the exploration, and how many ships had set sail. The expedition was an obscure bit of colonial history, but Ervin knew every detail. It was uncanny. Yet, as uncanny as his profound continent of knowledge was and is, it only induced a desire to carry on long conversations with him.
Therefore, in my opinion Ervin was not in any way connected with the Beat writers. Sure, he has made many references to them, and his work shows a great working knowledge of jazz and the Beat Generation, but Ervin writes in his own galaxy!
A friend who was a graduate from Berkeley and had a degree in philosophy was fed-up with books, and went to toss out a massive, lifelong collection of everything imaginable. I intruded on his self-destruction of books and asked if I could haul off some of them. I found a set of late 19th century Britannica Encyclopedias in fine condition, which I laboriously hauled off, along with enormous bundles of other books, to my small flat of that time in Manhattan Beach. When I told Ervin of my wonderful prize catch, the Britannica Encyclopedia, with great enthusiasm, he scratched his head and told me there was a neat description of something out of the ordinary on a specific set of pages. I wasn't spooked by his comment about what lay on the pages, but I was quick to go and check if he had the facts right and on the correct page. In my mind, it could have been compared to rushing over to a friend's pad and saying you found a rare needle in a haystack and having your friend respond by telling you about another rare needle in an 1896 haystack, exactly where to find it, who designed the needle, and where it was manufactured. When I gazed upon the page which had been referred to, I found that Ervin had exactly pinned a fact to its place in the universe just like one of Vladimir Nabokov's rare butterflies, or like the very Peacock butterfly Nabokov's father had caught in the woods around the time the Encyclopedia Britannica was printed.
Ervin went to University back east, to Cornell University when Nabokov was a professor there and rumor had it that Ervin sat in on his lectures. Ervin never talked much about his Cornell days except for mentioning a few people and telling how literary scouts were roaming East Coast universities in search of new talent. I was a poor speller and was embarrassed to show Ervin my prose for fear of criticism, but he calmed my trepidations with a laugh and told an amusing story about how a friend at Cornell had "lifted" an original poem by W .B. Yeats. Ervin said "Every other word was misspelled." The one person he did mention was his Cuban-Irish friend who had wild raven locks, who ended up marrying a raven girl with raven curls, and whose sister was a famous folk singer that lived in Carmel, California.
Ervin said his pal, Raven, came into a class during a final exam and waved good-bye to him, and then split for Cuba. (This was at the time Castro was coming down from the hills above Havana.) Raven was later to have Ervin as his best man at his wedding, and went on to cut a few albums with his lilac-scented girlfriend. Raven met his end at a party celebrating the publication of his new semi-autobiographical novel.
Ervin and Raven had an unbreakable bond of friendship and camaraderie. Ervin told me it was sad that Raven died before his time and said he was starting to really write and was destined to become a great writer because a writer is great when he stops writing about himself. In Ervin's mind, Raven was at that crucial point where his gift was maturing, and then, suddenly, he was snatched from us by an odd motorcycle accident at the book celebration party. Ervin raised an bushy eyebrow when he mentioned the accident and hinted at some covert intervention that had conspiracy written all over it. Ervin went so far as to say the feds or CIA knocked off Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.
Interestingly enough, both died at 27 and both supposedly died of a drug overdose, and I can't help thinking about Joplin's band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the certainty, in those days as well as now, that "Big Brother" is watching us! So, Ervin's arched eyebrow, dark and bushy, was not off the mark when he highly suspected foul play when Raven sped off, as Ervin put it, with a complete stranger, who showed up at the party uninvited. The stranger roared up to the front door and Raven the wild Irish-Cuban flew off into eternity after skidding and crashing into a tree. By the way, Ervin informed me that the stranger came back unscathed. (As I write this my gut turns and a foul word is on my lips, because I also had an immense respect for Raven).
     Ervin was not a paranoid!!! If anything, he had an excellent handle on the maneuverings of "The Great Society" and those cloak and dagger war mongers and their cohorts who helped spin the great wheels. Marge Piercy's book Dance the Eagle to Sleep (Random House, 1970) was sitting around Ervin's pad and he showed it to me, saying what a great book it was. He couldn't lend me the copy because his publishers wanted a statement from him on her new publication, and he was still occupied by its revolutionary content.
I will not go into politics a great deal here, but Ervin had FBI visitors slip up the three stairs to the Dutch-door of his 33rd Street pad and lean in over the open top half of the door and ask him what was in a jar. Ervin, later told me, he said that there were rubber bands in the jar. I guess they didn't have a search warrant because they made a quick exit. Ervin wasn't shaky after the visit, but I'd say he did seem "enigmatically annoyed." There might be some connection here to a suggestive vagueness in Ervin's comment: "When you're in L.A., I'm the person you hook up with!" (Some quotes might be slightly inaccurate, but I am doing my best to achieve perfect recall!)
Once, on a rainy day at Ervin's pad, we sat crossed-legged and did a Tarot reading for our deceased friend Raven. This was during the time when Ervin was still working diligently on a massive novel in which he said the plot was like that of an octopus, the tentacles going off in every direction. Ervin might have learned how to do a Tarot reading from his live-in girl friend, Veronica, or it might have had to do with a working knowledge of the cards that he would insert in his massive new work in progress. Veronica was a very attractive: petite with long black hair and sizzling dark eyes, playing with the occult magic that permeated Southern California in the 70's. She was probably in her early 20's because I met Ervin when I was approximately that age. He was 33 years old when he was finishing off his third massive novel, after all. He spread the cards out in front of us and then said he wanted to see where Raven was at that time. He slipped a card from the deck and placed it face up on another card face down. The card from the deck was The Hanged Man. Ervin turned to me and said Raven must be hung-up on the other side. As we sat, the rain pelted the windows, but we were nice and cozy. Ervin's eyes had a quizzical look to them when he said this about Raven. I looked down and pondered the odd picture on the card: a man dangling upside down with his feet tied as he hung from some wooden scaffold. Down below Ervin's perch, the Pacific lashed in its fury at the shoreline.

© 2002 by Bruce Owens.

"Welcome to Dr. Larry's World of Discomfort," he would whisper, going through the paperwork.
Contact Dr Larry Daw if you have any questions or comments about Pynchon.

"Goodo," said Picnic, blinking. "Man, look at the quail."
Contact the Great Quail if you have any suggestions, submissions, or criticisms about this site.