|Thomas Pynchon and the South Bay
by Garrison Frost
The Manhattan Beach of the early 21st Century hardly seems the kind of place that a reclusive literary icon would set up shop to write his great novel. And, truthfully, it isn't. But that wasn't always the case.
Thomas Pynchon burst onto the literary scene in 1963 with the publication of his first novel "V," which won its author the William Faulkner First Novel award. His second novel, "The Crying of Lot 49," only solidified Pynchon's reputation as a new American writer who was redefining the boundaries of the form.
But none of his earlier work prepared the literary world for Pynchon's next work, 1973's "Gravity's Rainbow." It was this doorstop of a book that had reviewers comparing Pynchon to Flaubert, Faulkner and Joyce. There are few modern writers plying their trade today who do not owe some stylistic kinship to Pynchon. He was the first author to give voice to modern paranoia and popular culture; many have followed his lead.
To discuss only his work is only to tell part of the story of Pynchon, for the author is also a legendary recluse. Actually, recluse might be too light a word. Invisible might be better.
Pynchon has been something of an enigma since the publication of his first work. Almost nothing is known about where or in what manner he lives. He does not give interviews or allow himself to be photographed. His family is silent. He can be contacted only through his agent. Aside from an occasional book review or essay, he rarely communicates with the outside world at all.
This is what we know: Pynchon was born May 8, 1937 in Glen Cove, N.Y. He graduated from Oyster Bay High School in 1953, enrolled at Cornell University, did a turn in the Navy and then returned to Cornell where he received his B.A. in 1959.
The only known photograph of Pynchon dates from 1953 and it shows a tall, short-haired man with bid ears, sunken eyes and teeth that would make Bugs Bunny jealous. He is wearing a dark sport coat that looks to be a size too big on him, over a white, open-collared shirt.
As far as anyone knows, Pynchon has only held no known job, as an advisor to technical writers at Boeing in Seattle from 1960 to 1962. It was shortly thereafter that "V" was published and its author disappeared.
In the absence of solid details, Pynchon's life has become something of a legend in literary circles. Stories abound. One story involved the book jacket photographer for "V" going to Pynchon's only known address, a hotel room in Mexico City, for a picture of the young author. The man who answered the door said Pynchon would be back in an hour, but when the photographer returned, the room was barren.
Another story involved the typically aggressive Normal Mailer, who after making numerous requests to have a drink with Pynchon, finally tracked him to an address and began pounding on the door. after a while, Mailer gave up, only to learn from neighbors that a strange tall man had jumped from the second story window and skittered off down the sidewalk.
Pynchon siting pop up every now and then. One moment, he is rumored to be involved in the writing of a television show. The next, he is penning a tribute to his favorite rock band.
Rumors, of course, exist that Pynchon doesn't exist at all. Or if he does exist, that he didn't write the books. In 1976, an article in the Soho News announced that Pynchon was in fact J.D. Salinger. Soon after the article came out, Pynchon sent a note to the author to the effect that he did exist and did write the books.
But back to Manhattan Beach.
According to several locals from back then, Pynchon wrote a great deal of "Gravity's Rainbow" while living in a tiny beach apartment in the north end of the city around 1969 or 1970.
Prior to her recent death, his old landlord said that she remembered the author well. Evelyn Guy said that Pynchon lived in a tiny bachelor apartment adjacent to their beachfront home before he moved into a small apartment a few blocks away at 217 33rd Street.
"He was a very tall, nice man," she said. "He would always get three or four months behind in his rent, and then he would catch up all at once."
According to Guy, Pynchon continued to collect his mail at their house long after he had moved away. About once a week he would come by and pick it up, often staying for dinner or to help her kids with their homework.
"We'd sit and talk for hours," she said. "We'd argue all the time. He was a liberal and I was a conservative. Of course, he was always smarter than I was."
Guy said Pynchon never talked about his writing.
Jim Hall, who at the time was a Green Beret stationed at nearby Fort MacArther, also knew Pynchon during these years.
"I was living in Manhattan Beach and dating a woman at UCLA who was a friend of his," Hall said. "We would hang out at his place occasionally. I honestly didn't know anything about him. I knew he was some sort of famous writer, but that was about it."
According to Hall, Pynchon spent a lot of time at a local hangout called the Fractured Cow, and was also known to put away a burrito or two at a little Mexican joint on Rosecrans Avenue called El Tarasco, which is still a popular place today.
With shaggy hair and the rumpled look of a writer, Pynchon possessed an intellect that was immediately noticeable to Hall.
"He was interesting, very intense, really smart," said Hall. "He was light years beyond anyone else."
Hall also noted that Pynchon was intensely private and extremely paranoid.
"I think he studied people," Hall said. "I don't think you were allowed around him if you weren't interesting and you weren't allowed back if he couldn't trust you."
Hall is sure that he was being studied because a conversation he recalled having with Pynchon about the police using computer surveillance to track drug dealers turned up in the author's novel "Vineland" 20 years later. He claimed that horoscopes Pynchon did of Hall and others turned up on behalf of characters in "Gravity's Rainbow."
As for Pynchon's paranoia, Hall said it wasn't exceptional given the era.
"You have to put it into the context of the time," Hall explained. "People were doing drugs. If the police back then pulled you over and you didn't have a draft card, you were arrested on the spot, probably beaten. All of us were paranoid. I just thought he was smart for being that way."
Pynchon's landlord had a different, less sinister explanation for Pynchon's obsession with privacy.
"I think the reason he was so private was because he was a bad stutterer," Guy said. "Around us, he didn't stutter, but it was really bad around people he didn't know."
Hall spoke of Pynchon's "pig fetish." Apparently, the author was notorious for carrying around a 6- to 7-inch yellow plastic pig. Upon hearing of this, one may recall Pig Bodine, a character who pops up in several of Pynchon's books.
First and foremost, though, Pynchon was a writer, according to Hall. He was known to lock himself up in his apartment for days and weeks at a time while writing "Gravity's Rainbow," often going so far as to block out the windows with towels.
Guy recalled that, while doing research for the book, Pynchon translated an entire book of Russian history using only an English/Russian dictionary.
Perhaps the most interesting tale that Hall has regarding Pynchon is of their last meeting. It was around 1975 and he hadn't seen the author since the two chatted at the counter at El Tarasco a couple of years earlier. By chance, Hall found himself back in Manhattan Beach and met Pynchon on the sidewalk near the Fractured Cow.
"I was walking down the street and he was walking toward me," Hall said. "Our paths crossed right in front of a pay phone, our eyes met and we recognized each other. I asked how he was and at that moment the telephone rang. He looked at me and looked at the phone, then turned around and ran down the street, and I never saw him again."
Apparently, Pynchon did not confine himself to the north end of Manhattan Beach.
According to Peter Pott, former manager of the now-closed Either/Or Bookstore in Hermosa Beach, Pynchon was a frequent visitor to the store around 1970 and 1971.
At that time, a lot of El Camino (Junior College) students were all claiming to be friends of his," recalled Pott. "I ignored it. But about the same time, someone was coming in here who never said who he was. We talked about books and I could tell he was kind of a literary person. One night, an employee who claimed to know Pynchon saw the guy and turned purple."
Years later, when he was Pynchon's college photograph in a magazine, Pott knew for sure that it was the same man who caused his employee to change color. Beyond that, Pott recalled very little about Pynchon beyond a few snippets of conversation.
There aren't too many people who remember Pynchon left in the beach cities, and those who do can't add very much. The city's historical society is hip-deep in railroad spikes and Metlox pottery, but doesn't have a speck of information about the famous author who penned his most famous work there.
Anyone hungry for more evidence of Pynchon in the beach cities, though, can turn to the author's novels.
While "V" was written before the author came to Southern California, it is entirely possible that Pynchon was living in or around Manhattan Beach while he was writing "The Crying of Lot 49." The book is the story of Oedipa Maas, who after being made executor of a rich man's will, comes to discover through his bizarre stamp collect the existence of an underground mail deliver service that may or may not have existed for centuries. The book is a hilarious tribute to paranoia and conspiracy theory.
Although most of the book takes place in Northern California, at the very beginning Oedipa journey s down south to the town of San Narciso to visit with a lawyer named Metzger. The obvious play on the word "narc" immediately brings to mind Hall's characterization of the Manhattan Beach's anti-drug police state.
There are more similarities in the text:
"Somewhere beyond the battening, urging sweep of three-bedroom houses rushing by in their thousands across all the dark beige hills, somehow implicit in an arrogance or bite to the smog the more inland somnolence of San Narciso did lack, lurked the sea, the unimaginable Pacific, the one to which all surfers, beach rats, sewage disposal schemes, tourist incursions, sunned homosexuality, chartered fishing are irrelevant ..."
That indeed sounds very much like the Manhattan Beach of the late 60s and early 70s. Later in the book, the author notes that San Narciso's major source of employment is an aerospace company called Yoyodyne, which bears a striking similarity to TRW, the South Bay's aerospace monolith.
"Gravity's Rainbow" takes place in the author's stylized interpretation of the anarchy of postwar Europe, with all the world's armed forces clamoring to get their hands on Germany's missile technology. Toward the end, there is this odd paragraph:
"The Santa Monica Freeway is traditionally the scene of every form of automotive folly known to man. It is not white, well-bred like the San Diego, nor as treacherously engineered as the Pasadena, nor quite as ghetto-suicidal as the Harbor."
Like any good South Bay resident, Pynchon knows his freeways.
In 1990's "Vineland," Pynchon truly reveals his knowledge of the South Bay. The book depicts the two driving elements of 1960s culture hippie and authoritarian still grappling with each other in the late 1980s, even though by now both forces have so bastardized that their conflict has become pointless.
In the story, Pynchon makes numerous references to local towns like Torrance, Hawthorne and Hermosa Beach. Here you also see the South Bay anti-drug movement that Hall described:
"In those years there were so many federal narcs in the area that if you were busted in the South Bay you actually stood less of a chance of its being the local Man than some fed. All the beach towns, plus Torrance, Hawthorne, and greater Walteria, were in on some grandiose pilot project ..."
Pynchon doesn't refer to Manhattan Beach by name. Rather, he uses the name Gordita Beach to refer to his one-time home. This description of a typical Gordita Beach home is a fine example:
"But having been put up back during an era of overdesign, it proved to be sturdier than it looked, with its old stucco eaten at to reveal generations of paint jobs in different beach-town pastels, corroded by salt and petrochemical fogs that flowed in the summers onshore up the sand slopes, on up past Sepulveda ..."
A description in another passage, a dream sequence, reads very much like the South Bay:
"A California beach town, the houses tightly crowded, all trembling at the wind off the ocean ... Though everyone in town was safe, the beaches were gone, and the lifeguard towers and volleyball nets, and all the expensive beachfront houses and lots, and the Piers, all covered by the cool green Flood."
Pynchon's old place on 33rd Street is still there. The current residents say they are fans of the author, but have never seen him. They did pass on a rumor that the trumpets in "Crying" were a common feature on mailboxes back in the 1970s.
Walk the area now and you will likely never see the trumpets. They're all gone now, just as gone as Manhattan Beach's only brush with literary greatness.
(Note: Earlier versions of this article have appeared elsewhere in print)
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