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 engrailed
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. . . .
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
engineer...so...just a picture here of how Ervin set
words down layer upon layer, transparency upon transparency.)
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.