1990 Seattle Times Press Photo: The house where Thomas Pynchon wrote V.   Leave a comment

The Thomas Trail: every contact leaves traces

 

 

 

1990 Seattle Times Press Photo: The house where Thomas Pynchon wrote V.

4709 1/2, 9th Avenue, N.E., Seattle 5, WA

The house where V. was written

The house where V. was written_2

A Genius Among US – For A While

By Donn Fry

Thomas Pynchon is a slippery character. For nearly 30 years, he has maintained a life so private that even that other fabled literary recluse, J.D. Salinger, seems positively gregarious.

 

Although Pynchon is now 52, only two photographs of him have ever been published – one from his high-school yearbook, the other taken a few years later. The trail of the elusive author turned cold in 1963, not long after he left, of all places, Seattle.

I was surprised to learn recently that Pynchon had lived here in the early ’60s; indeed, city directories from those years say that a Thomas R. Pynchon (“Pyncheon” in one listing) lived at 4709 1/2 Ninth Ave. N.E., in the University District.

Today, that apartment at the back end of a larger home is a squalid, uninhabited wreck, closed by the city until a host of “inadequacies” – from ventilation and sanitation to the electrical system and heating – is remedied.

But do you suppose that the ratty purple-velveteen couch, now a sodden heap in the front room, is the very spot where Pynchon dreamed up the baroque complexities of his first novel, “V.”? He was writing it during his Seattle years, and it was published not long after he left. I first discovered that wonderful book in 1965, when I was a Peace Corps volunteer living in Tanzania; the extravagant adventures of Benny Profane, Herbert Stencil and the unforgettable Pig Bodine enlivened many a long African night. I didn’t want “V.” to end.

Back in this country in 1967, I remember sending a copy of Pynchon’s second novel, “The Crying of Lot 49,” to a girlfriend still in Tanzania. “If you want to know what’s really going on in America today,” I declared in a letter, “this is the book to read.” The novel drew upon every ounce of pop-culture energy in the late ’60s; but Pynchon himself had disappeared into the era’s frenzied maw, reportedly to a peripatetic life among friends, traveling incognito.

Actually, a fair amount is known about Pynchon’s early years: His birth in 1937 in Glen Cove, Long Island, to a Republican family whose American history stretches back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony; his graduation, at barely 16, from Oyster Bay (N.Y.) High School, the class salutatorian; his study – interrupted by two years in the Navy – at Cornell (B.A., 1959), where he excelled in everything from physics to English; even his close college friendship with Richard Farina, the folk singer and writer who was killed in a motorcycle accident not long after marrying Joan Baez’s sister, Mimi.

The 22-year-old Pynchon was already writing “V.” when he accepted a job as a technical writer for Boeing and moved to Seattle. He worked there from Feb. 22, 1960, to Sept. 13, 1962, and a few former employees have vivid memories of a young man whose brilliance was matched by an eccentricity that was rare within Boeing’s strait-laced confines.

“He was a very self-contained individual, and he didn’t associate much with his fellow workers,” recalled Boeing retiree Walter Bailey, who worked in the same section and who developed a fleeting friendship after Pynchon responded to a literary allusion Bailey used in a memo: “He was taken aback. He seemed surprised that anyone in the office would know anything like that.”

Bailey confirmed another story I had heard: Pynchon would sometimes avoid the office hubbub by covering his desk – and himself – with a huge sheet of paper used for technical drawings. Apparently it was an effort to concentrate.

Kenneth Calkins, once a writer for Boeing magazine, remembers a tall young man with jeans, long hair and a “kind of Wyatt Earp-type handlebar mustache.” He met Pynchon after complimenting him on an article he had written for another Boeing publication.

“He did a story on the soldering of electronic circuitry, which I have absolutely no interest in,” Calkins recalled. “But I thought, my gosh, how can a guy make a story about this so interesting?”

Pynchon was just practicing, I suspect – taking a break from “V.” and warming up for “Gravity’s Rainbow.”

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Posted March 23, 2015 by Nadar in Thomas Pynchon

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