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Brevity’s Raincheck

We showed up once at a party, not a masquerade party, in disguise--he as Hemingway, I as Scott Fitzgerald, each of us aware that the other had been through a phase of enthusiasm for this respective author. I suppose by then I was learning from (Richard) Farina how to be amused at some of my obsessions .

-- Thomas Pynchon

Two men’s deaths will change my life, though I have never met them. No adult would call them old--one is 57 today, the other not much older--so it may be ghoulish even to think about their mortalities. But young children think about their parent’s deaths, and not because their parents are old, either. Rather because life would be unbearable, and therefore irresistible, to imagine without them. Vin Scully and novelist Thomas Pynchon are not my biological parents, yet the first taught me how to talk, and the second won’t stop teaching me how to read and write.

It’s been an eventful spring for Pynchon obsessives. First came his unlikely transubstantiation into a subplot on an episode of “The John Larroquette Show.” In a script reportedly vetted by Pynchon himself, Larroquette refused to believe that his reclusive favorite author was on CD-swapping terms with his fry cook. The music in question, at Pynchon’s suggestion, was by Texas-based acid rock legend Roky Erickson.

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No sooner had Pynchonians besieged their local music stores with Erickson reserves (“I know you’ve never sold one before, just hold it till I get there!”), than the real buzz bomb hit: In 1996, Holt will publish a new novel by Pynchon.

1996! Two whole years! Never mind that 17 years had elapsed between his last two novels, “Gravity’s Rainbow” and “Vineland.” Pynchonians are greedy.

And then, like an answered prayer, came word that Catalyst Records was issuing a new Spike Jones retrospective CD, with a cover by “Maus” artist Art Spiegelman and all-new liner notes by . . . Thomas Pynchon. Back to that phone! (“Hold it till I get there! No, that must have been someone else . . . .”)

I now hold in my hand these same sacramental liner notes, the first public utterance from Pynchon since last year’s NYT Book Review cover essay on sloth. If there’s any justice, “Spiked!” will earn Pynchon, that most musically aware of novelists, his first Grammy. Maybe he’ll even accept it.

Like Halloween candy, enjoyment of Pynchon’s essay is inevitably tainted by the knowledge that there won’t be any more for months and months. Also like Halloween candy, it’s wonderful, liberally laced with Pynchon’s patented broke-back syntax and shotgun similes.

Along comes Pynchon, just when you thought the next person who weighed in on political correctness--waggling fingers miming quotation marks in the air--ought to get his knuckles broken. Putting the subject of Jones’ now-unfashionable dialect humor into humanely mocking perspective, Pynchon finds:

“More than enough material for that interesting subset of folks actively looking to be offended . . . this will require the sort of listener who either wants to wince with embarrassment or can find in vintage bigotry quaint refuge from the more virulent forms encountered in our own era.” Yes, but whose side is he on? Our side, always, whoever we are.

Catalysts’s Tim Page--chief music critic for Newsday on Pynchon’s native Long Island--has clearly read Pynchon’s intro to the 1984 short story collection, “Slow Learner.” In it Pynchon explained his philosophy of surrealism with this quote from Spike Jones Jr.: “One of the things that people don’t realize about dad’s kind of music is, when you replace a C-sharp with a gunshot, it has to be a C-sharp gunshot or it sounds awful.”

Pynchon’s perfect-pitch surrealism must be the only one of his prodigious gifts missing from the liner notes to “Spiked!” Signal among these gifts is his amazing, Baedeker-detailed sense of time and place. His loving thumbnail evocation of the anarchic bandleader’s postwar L.A. recalls his sure feel for ‘60s Houston, on view two years ago in his equally warm-hearted introduction to Donald Barthelme’s posthumous oddments.

Say this for the man, today, his birthday, of all days: His mom sure taught him the importance of a proper thank-you note. So did mine.


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