The bite of the brown recluse spider is upsetting, if not sometimes fatal to deadly, to some so toxic to such an umteenth and darkly chimerical degree that this arachnidal prick--even at dosages too tiny to see with the proverbial or empirical naked eye--oh my, well, it can blot your anatomical/spiritual sun (and we all know there is no way to halt any eclipse), an event or bite, yes, that could ruin your whole day, as THEY say, which perforce reminds me: That once and former colleague of mine from the entomology flank of the Department of Biology at The College of William & Flossy, Dr. Dabney F. Posthlewaite, describes his experience as a missionary--or was it mercenary--(oh, whatās the real difference) in equatorial Africa in the 50s during a mid-day, total solar eclipse: "It seems--I know not seems, madam--that as the eclipse began, the natives ran about shouting, bellowing, and beating upon their drums, rattling rain sticks, pinching their wives and children (who then wailed, gnashed, and cried out), generally raising what we blush to call 'holy hell' during the entire astronomical extravaganza. Post chaos, we explained to them the phenomenon in simple scientific terms, paraphrasing copiously from a recent article in Scientific American. Such riotous behavior, we told them, was quite uncalled for because the sun was bound, by natural law and thus God's law, to reappear. They respectfully rejected our analysis and optimism, citing countless examples from their oral history which showed that every time they beat their drums and rioted when the sun disappeared as it had, the sun then slowly reappeared. Several of my comrades, exasperated at this classic fallacy of false cause (post hoc, ergo propter hoc)--yet unable to counter the savages' primitive illogic--secretly suggested that we just 'poison all of the bloody, pagan bastards and move on.' We did not. But we did radio for an airplane and some extra Bibles, that we might leave their aboriginal souls to take a course unfettered, into the arms of the Lord."
Now the brown recluse spider (Loxosceles reclusa) gets its name from 1) its color, and 2) its practice of a) spinning webs in sheltered or secluded places, and b) occasionally hiding in folds of cloth. Some (THEY again) call it the violin spider because of the dark, violin-shaped mark on the cephalothorax of this predatory, terrestrial anthropod. Another theory of nomenclature maintains that Antonio Stradivari and Sons used hundreds of these small but fearsome insects to guard their string instruments shop in Cremona from 1666 to 1737, roughly. Consequently, a side interest and espionage tactic of their rival artisan families, the Amati and Guarneri clans, was to pursue and perfect in the crudest of ways the 18th century science of pesticide technology. Remember that the next time you hear some blowhard begin a sentence with the word theoretically.
Recluse, however, is the word which haunts and prompts todayās tale/essay. So, as for the etymology of our buzzword, The American Heritage Dictionary (blast the OED and its cue-ball magnifying glass) reveals that recluse gets here (English) from ". . . Middle English, from French reclus, from Latin recl_sus, past participle of recl_dere, to shut up: re-, re- + claudere, to close." Got it?
One is reclusive if he/she seeks, prefers and maintains seclusion or isolation. The recluse has a rare and select set of friends and usually does not go "home" for Christmas-- if in fact relatives give a hoot--because the local newspaper might call for an interview, and even a photograph. But quick now, when you think of literary personages and see or hear the word recluse, who violates your mind's eye?
Well, you betcha, if you're over sixty and still pull out the old Norton anthology from American Literature class. BUT, somewhere among us here at the close of the 20th century, a run of decades ten with myriad shades and sounds from up and down all physical and metaphysical spectrums, out there resides indeed a diamond of reclusivity in the novelist Thomas Pynchon, tagged by notable Yale professor Edward Mendelson as, ". . . the greatest living writer in the English-speaking world."
But would you not just know it, there's a mangrove crab in the cabernet--something like the fly in the balm, the stealth in the hard drive, the spy in the war room, etcetera--because Thomas Ruggles Pynchon (descended from so many patriots, businessmen and witch burners) refuses and avoids interviews, photography, awards dinners, listed numbers, email, published address, complimentary six-packs of micro brewery beer, Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes checks, repairmen, free concert tickets, Amnesty International personalized return address labels, sample-size breakfast cereal, 50 free hours of American Online, credit cards, book club bonus points, elections, escorts, and . . . well, you know. So, what is the scoop? That is, who is this guy? Where is this guy? What is he doing when heās not writing a novel--a book certain to be religiously and fervently embraced by the academy, the American literary world, tens of thousands of readers, sometimes even the bestseller list (just wait)--that is destined to baffle, delight, move, and enthrall a hell of a lot of people?
Well, yours truly (B.M.W. Schrapnel) has had over the last ten or so years the incredible neutral fortune of crossing the erratic and low key path of Thomas Pynchon, very brief encounters, "sightings" if you will. They have been perhaps as weird and tantalizing as you might suspect; but allow me to preface this subplot of todayās adventure by pointing out that by the early 1980s I had read The Crying of Lot 49 and probably all of Gravity's Rainbow. I was aware of their authorās scarcity, of how very little was seen or known of him since his college years, the late 1950s--in short, his whereabouts--and delighted and supportive was I of his zeal and flare for secrecy and privacy. I relished the mystery and wished it never to end.
"Oh, his work is fabulous, brilliant," I told a 1984 class of graduate students, "and I hope he never has to come out of seclusion, or wants to."
"But, Dr. Schrapnel, why," whined a puzzled young woman from Vermont. "Wouldnāt it be great to see him and find out more about him?"
"Aah, hell no," I replied, dismissing the class early.
The following summer I was visiting an old college friend who lives in Aptos, California, and while browsing a sprawling, run down antique mall I watched a tall, non-sequitur-looking man thumb through a bin of old paperback songbooks from the 60s and beyond. Suddenly he looked startled, then smiled, and subsequently snatched a thin and tattered book from the bin. He hurried past me to the cash register near the front of the store and purchased the book. I had noticed as he went by that the selection he nearly tore from its resting place, with a brief twinkle of horror in his eyes, was a rare first edition of The Judy Collins Songbook. Something about this man, though, perhaps the Spike Jones button on the collar of his jacket--the one with Spike holding a cowbell over each ear and gritting his new teeth--yes, something said to me that this dude was not rushing home to break out the Yamaha flat top and strum a little "Both Sides Now." I followed him outside to the rickety bench on the wooden porch of Rory Muldoon's Antiques, Collectibles, Books and Signage, and I watched him sit down and turn to the book's photography once again. When he came to the snapshot of Richard Farinaās funeral, a look of solemn reminiscence rose up in his face. Then he glanced up and caught my friendly, yet curious, perusal.
"I wish Iād seen that book before you did," I said.
"So do I," he replied. "Here, you can have it."
He handed the book to me, opened to the page he had been examining. I glanced at the photograph, then asked as he stood up, "Did you guys really drink Red Cap Ale at a local bar to study for a final exam?" I remembered that anecdote from Pynchonās introduction to Farinaās Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. Pynchon and Farina were fellow students at Cornell.
A glance of unpleasant surprise he gave me, but with continued eye contact came a wary smile. I grinned back and added, "You donāt need to answer that. I support and quietly cheer your privacy. Thanks for the book."
I closed the songbook, shook his hand, and walked away.
A few days later I was doing soup, sandwich and Olympia at a local tavern when the bartender sat a full cold one in front of me with, "That's on the gentleman at the end of the bar." It was Pynchon again. I smiled and nodded, and when finished eating I walked over to his end of the bar and bought him a beer. We talked.
Upon learning that I was a college English prof, he beamed and asked how I thought the multiculturalism/canon debate would turn out; in other words, who would win the curriculum wars? I said I'd give him the multiculturalists and a touchdown and still take the canonites, that somewhere during the first decade of the next century the canon crabs should have Shakespeare and such back in the requirements column for most English majors, exception being the mindless, deathless radicals at Stanford, Princeton, and maybe Georgetown.
"So, are you a racist," he asked frowning, "one of those arch WASPs who reads and teaches mostly dead, white European males and their followers?"
"Good one," I laughed, and sipped the remainder of my third beer. "I read and teach mostly what I like and understand, and what I anticipate might throttle my students; for it is they who constitute the raison de etre we call the bottom line. I don't think the multiculturalists or the old canon faithfuls read them, the students, very carefully or accurately. Sometimes they go for Shakespeare, Melville, Jane Austen, maybe Frederick Douglas, or Ursula Leguin, or maybe you."
"Me! You've taught my work? In what class, which stories?" He was suddenly uncomfortable, perhaps annoyed or embarrassed, but he kept smiling. I notice that he seemed to have had a lot of dental work done since those rare college and Navy photographs.
"I know Lot 49 and Gravity's Rainbow, and most of the standard scholarship on them. They're excellent and difficult, but fabulous satires, among other things. A lot of students love them, some canāt finish the longer one, just like their educations."
He frowned, then confessed, "I think I know what you mean by 'standard scholarship,' but Iāve never been too happy with the spectacle of my writing, erudite as the critics say it is, appearing on a reading list for a contemporary lit class. I couldn't sit calmly and watch a story of mine being diagramed on a chalk board, dissected, graphed, via transparencies and the more advanced lines of overhead projectors, TV cameras in those computers, you've seen it, haven't you? And what the hell are those deconstructionists trying to accomplish? Thereās still a few of them out there, arenāt there?"
The questions, I took rhetorically. He shook his head, sipped his brew, then changed the focus and asked, "Do you teach writing too?"
Now I was being interviewed by Pynchon, it seemed. Damned if I could mount any inquiries as to what he was up to in California. He was a charming and witty fellow (not at all to my surprise) and when he got up to leave for a dinner date I said, "Good luck with whatever the hell you are working on now. So what the hell are you working on now?"
He was walking away, and as he reached for the door of the tavern he shouted back, "A book!" I was left with the bar tab.
On a cool March afternoon in 1991, I was on my way to Charlotte to judge a St. Patrick's Day poetry reading. I was sucking up to a water fountain at a southbound rest area along Interstate 77 in Virginia when a tall fellow in a half-zipped bomber jacket and pilot sunglasses tapped me on the shoulder and asked, "Well, professor, have you worked Vineland into one of your modern novel courses yet?" I knew the voice, tried to hide my shock and surprise, wiped my lips on the sleeve of my nylon windbreaker. He shook my hand, and before I could answer said, "Come join me for a short while in my rented RV. You look like you could use a beverage."
Immediately I told him how chagrined I was over not being indirectly ridiculed or caricatured in Vineland, that three hours of Olympia--on me--should have been worth a cameo at any rate, or at least a minor Thanatoid part. I vowed never to teach the book anywhere, in spite of its cosmic verities, wonderful characters, and generally epic complaints raised to the level of allegory.
He roared and shot back, "Good! Really, or rilly, good, professor. Youāll get your uppercuts some day, but meanwhile, let us retire to my shiny, rented Airstream to drain my last four specimens of Rolling Rock, the infamous green death from the beautiful Laurel Highlands. You may claim two of them."
"Youāre in quite the bubbling frame of mind, it seems, for such a typical and dreary March day. What brings you to the Interstate, southbound, and in a frigging recreational abomination?"
Oh, he spoke the truth. We strolled to the big parking lot where a long, silver trailer sat in tow behind a Chevy pickup truck. We went inside.
"Why, Iām embarked on an adventure, to pick up my fair love and agent, who to you shall remain anonymous, along with the details of my destinations, and so on. I trust you understand."
"Indeed, indeed," I replied, as we sat down at a pull-down table, one that seemed to drop out of the wall, like a hobbit's Murphy bed. Pynchon opened the small refrigerator and lifted out a cardboard six-pack carrier with four Rolling Rock longnecks in it, poised like green rockets ready to launch some desperate environmental campaign. Aggressive was I this time as to the writer's work in progress, Mason & Dixon, an imaginative picaresque biography and historical novel starring those two British astronomers turned surveyors who contributed geographical definition to the American Civil War with their famous line. He allowed me to read a few pages of the manuscript, specifics of which I now do not recall, although I did laugh out loud twice.
"Delighted that you approve, doctor." He said it with a thick southern drawl, while verily lilting from the FM radio on the counter next to the tiny sink--truly it must have been FM, for the sound, as Steely Dan once noted and sang, had "no static at all!"--yes, meandering through the damp air of the Airstream came the words and music to "Come Back to Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard," by John Prine.
After about twenty more minutes of trash talk about the weather and the demise of the English major he explained, "Schrap, my man, I must get this gleaming, obscene contraption back on the highway. Melanie is just going to croak when she sees me in this. Meanwhile, it was truly good to see you again. Give me your card, and maybe Iāll be in touch. Appreciate the cooperation." The beers were consumed. We shook hands.
As I left, I tripped down the flimsy, aluminum steps of the motor home, stumbling into the parking lot but breaking my fall with a gloved right hand. Laughter oozed from behind the slamming door. I let it go.
Honestly, I never expected to see Thomas Pynchon again after two strokes of luck like that; something like two lightning strikes on the same beach umbrella on the same afternoon, which, mere hours apart, kill different people from the same town who do not know the other is vacationing in the same place and staying on the same floor of the same hotel. Rilly. Alanis Morrisette would sing it's ironic.
As for the Airstream adventure in particular, well, it compares to the stories of those unlucky souls captured by aliens and taken aboard an extraterrestrial spacecraft, subjected to beers and questioning, like so many Homer Simpsons. So, like so many of that fate and faith, I assured myself, "Damned if Iāll tell. Whoād believe me anyway."
Now it is 1997. And as you read this, Mason & Dixon may be on its way to bookstores, about to mount a major attack on bestseller lists. Holt plans a first run of 200,000 copies. I am, as the vernacular goes, pissed at not receiving a review copy. So I cannot offer much on the book except that a few pages of a draft, a few years ago, made me laugh. But miraculously, or as fate sometimes snarls and grins, or pricks you, I can tell you a few things about Thomas Pynchonās latest work in progress; for much to my aghast and sometime delight, we literally ran into each other just last month in __________ .
I was strolling out of a watchtower, not watching where I was going, when, BAM . . . shoulders collided, or rather my chin bounced off of his shoulder, he being about four inches taller than I.
"Damn! Sorry . . . I . . . ."
"Oh . . . itās . . . not you?"
We stared at each other, removing simultaneously our respective sunglasses.
"Iāll be ______. Iāll be just ____ing ______."
"Thatās real ____ing articulate, doctor. How the hell have you been, presently and otherwise?"
I laughed softly and wiped some saliva and blood from my lip. "Well, Iām doing, doing just groovy, I guess you might say." I resisted calling him by name, aware of the many buzzing tourists on the battlement.
"Not I, but I get your meaning. Come now, let's go across the boulevard and wash the salt air and such out of our mouths. I think it's your turn to buy."
So, in a second floor tavern and restaurant overlooking ________ Bay and the gloriously bustling intracoastal waterway, Thomas Pynchon and I caught up. After three bottles of Calusa Wheat (a golden tropical ale) Pynchon said, "I have to confess, I thought I might bump into you here. In other words, I sought out this slightly chance meeting. It seems I've learned from one of my what you might call double agents that you are an acquaintance, shall I say, of one notable ecoterrorist, Mr. Forrest Jones, true?"
I must have frowned, for he did not wait for me to answer. "I know. I know. He cherishes his secrecy as much as I do mine. But I donāt intend to compromise or threaten that. Iām doing research for my next book, and so far it has a bright green theme, or tint, you might say."
It disappointed me to tell him, "I have to be honest, Tom. I've not heard from Forrest Jones in over a year now. You probably know of his last caper, then, from my columns, the one I called the great Sasquatch coverup. And I've heard absolutely nothing one way or another as to whether he and his people really did find the remains of a number of slain Bigfoots in a remote Washington forest. In addition, he's had major cosmetic surgery, I'm told, and I don't believe I'd recognize him if he walked over here and bought me a beer, or a Freddy Burger."
That quizzical grin rose in his face. I anticipated and said, "Donāt ask. You really donāt want to know about Freddy Burgers. Anyway, it's like I'm in Sergeant Schultz's shoes: 'I know NOTHing, NOTHing,' or very little of helpful substance. Nor do I think I really want to know, rilly."
Pynchon just stared. After a few seconds we sipped our beers simultaneously and I noticed seeping through the house sound system "Ladies Love Outlaws," by Tom Rush. We both aahed, then Pynchon said, "Iām shattered, like, uh, Mick Jagger."
"You see, unlike you, Jones must remain anonymous, underground, on the run, otherwise he's going to jail forever, at the very least. I fear that he's slain a few pro-development pigs, as he calls them. Who knows? And I suspect he has a very sophisticated network of fellow radicals, one that, as I once described in jest but now wonder if it is genuine hyperbole, one that will make Earth First! look like the Campfire Girls."
He seemed to force his grin. "I thought so," he replied, after another sip of beer. "But that's why I'm interested in him, and not, say, the archetypal monkeywrencher--Dave Foreman--or his buddies, or any old Ed Abbey follower. Guess Iām getting into a darker phase in my late middle ages."
"Believe me," I said with a smile, "I can understand that dislocation." I drank the remainder, about three ounces, of my beer, then added, "If I learn anything that could help, I'll pass it along. But you'd better be damn well aware that there's certain and fantastic danger involved if you're thinking about going underground with Forrest Jones. Don't screw up and get him nailed, or yourself killed. It could happen, assuming you ever even get the chance to do so. I really don't think that you'll get a chance. Jones is just too intense and focused. That's my read."
"Just looking for an opportunity," he explained, looking out the window toward the waterway. "Maybe I don't really have to meet him. Hell, it's only a novel I'm writing, not a biography. I can invent."
I believe that the gravity of my words on Forrest Jones turned Pynchon on another course. He stopped a waiter and ordered two doubles of Barbancourt five-star Haitian rhum. They came quickly in brandy snifters. Distracted now, he asked no more about Forrest Jones. We drank and talked for another half hour, though, ate an order of chips and salsa, and he added that his next novel will be, well, "neo-gothic." Set in an American subtropical region that is over run by retirees from the Midwest and New York, the book's themes are greed, solipsism, and anti-environmentalism, with a dash of Armageddon. Destruction, death and gore abound. The heroes are aliens from a distant galaxy. These extraterrestrials are more plant than animal, and therefore appalled at how life has evolved on earth. You may guess the rest. I'm sure the novel will take four or five years to draft and polish; and I'm hopeful it will acquire some alteration of motifs and themes.
Before Thomas Pynchon departed this time, "I have two questions," I announced, "neither of which should threaten your clandestine livelihood. So I expect answers, Your Recluseness. OK?"
"First, I was in London in 1979, after Gravityās Rainbow of course, so I wonder, did you get the idea for the giant Adenoid monster from those spinach scones at Crudelyās Pub & Breakfast?"
"Yes! Yes! They are the guilty pastries. No one has ever asked me that, not that I give anyone much of a chance to ask me anything. Weren't they horrid? The place burned down, you know." He chortled, and so did I.
"And finally, though less interesting, what the hell did you do with the card I gave you that afternoon in your rented Airstream? Donāt lie. You could have had someone mail me a prepub copy of Mason & Dixon. You wouldnāt have had to employ your double agents to find me. The information on the card is current. Whatās the scoop, man?"
Pynchon frowned and went pensive for a few seconds. "I'm sorry," he finally said. "My agent/wife found your card, and she's read your etymology columns. She tossed your card in the citronella candle one night while we were camping at _________, and, well, I donāt know what else to say."
"That's enough," I snapped back, raising my hand and giving him the Vulcan live-long-and-prosper sign.
This time we split the bill, dropping a 20% tip, which made the raven-haired, willowy waitress who majored in theater at the Liberal Arts college a few blocks away, well, I hope she didnāt have to pay for the glassware. I gave Pynchon another of my cards. He put it in his wallet; I watched him do it. When we left the tavern that day he said, again, that maybe he would be in touch. I told him, with a guffaw, that I didn't believe it.
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