The story begins with Dennis Flange, a Long-Island attorney and ex-Navy communications officer, entertaining his friend and garbage man, Rocco Squarcione. As the two drink Rocco's home-made muscatel and listen to Vivaldi, they are suddenly dropped in on by one of Flange's old Navy friends, Pig Bodine. Unfortunately, his unexpected visit is not at all appreciated by Dennis' wife of seven years, Cindy -- Bodine was responsible for carting her husband off during their wedding reception and taking him on a two-month drinking spree that landed Flange in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, completely broke. Already angered by Rocco's presence in her house, the sight of Pig sends Cindy into a state of fury and she promptly commands the trio to leave and never come back. Kicked out of the house and without even a change of clothes, Flange ponders his situation when Rocco mentions that a friend of his by the name of Bolingbroke is a watchman at the local garbage dump and would be able to put both Dennis and Pig up for the night. After Rocco leaves the two with Boligbroke, the watchman and his guests grab two extra mattresses and retreat into his shack-like home in the middle of the dump. There, they drink home-made wine and tell sea-stories until they fall asleep.
In the middle of the night, however, Flange is awakened by a girl's voice urging him to come outside. After a moment of indecision, he ventures out to find whoever is calling him, and discovers that the voice belongs to a beautiful, three and a half foot tall gypsy by the name of Nerissa. After introducing herself, she leads the bewildered Flange into the piles of garbage, through a door made from a discarded refrigerator, and into a network of underground tunnels that eventually leads to her surprisingly elaborate room. There, Nerissa introduces Flange to her pet rat Hyacinth and explains to him that a fortune-teller had told her that she would marry a tall, blonde, Anglo-Saxon man with strong arms. As Dennis fits the description, she asks him to stay with her, and after a brief moment of contemplation, he agrees.
Pynchon describes the fundamental problems in "Low-Lands," saying that he had let too many of his adolescent values creep into the story, ruining the otherwise sympathetic character of Dennis Flange, and that the short story was actually more of a character sketch than anything else. He points out, in the case of his latter complaint, that the work has no conflict resolution and very little movement -- Dennis' character doesn't even grow much throughout its course.
In discussing the story's corruption by his youthful values, Pynchon cites his early attitudes concerning marriage and parenting. More specifically, he suggests that (perhaps subconsciously) he had used Flange's character as a screen on which to project his own desire to have children without the expense of a developed marital relationship. Another suggestion Pynchon offers is that perhaps Flange's desires were a display of the general male attitude of the time, not simply his own, however he is unsure of which of the two would be the most accurate.
Pynchon also cites his adolescent views as the reason behind what he calls "an unacceptable level of racist, sexist and proto-Fascist talk throughout this story" (Thomas Pynchon's Slow Learner, pg. 11). Apologetically, he admits that this was his own attitude at the time, and it was authentic, but simply "the voice of a smart-assed jerk who didn't know any better" (Thomas Pynchon's Slow Learner, pg. 12).
On a lighter note, the author is pleased to point out that "Low-Lands" features the first appearance of Pig Bodine, whom the story was originally supposed to be about. Pynchon describes how Pig's character was actually based upon an infamous member of the Navy at the same time as Pynchon himself. In fact, Bodine's abduction of Flange during the latter's wedding reception was a true story the author heard from one of his senior patrol members. Pynchon finally states that it is because of these occurrences, among other factors, that Pig Bodine has managed to show up again in later novels.
Perhaps the most prominent aspect of "Low-Lands" not mentioned by Pynchon himself is that of appearance versus reality. The first example seen is that of Rocco Squarcione, who shows up at Flange's door at 9:00 AM holding a jug of home-made wine, unannounced, still covered in remnants of garbage, and yet has an appreciation for the music of Vivaldi. Then there is the case of the dump: the place is chaotic, littered with every type of refuse imaginable, booby-trapped and basically inhospitable, and yet it is there where Flange finds his fantasy woman and a underground world where reality is mixed around to the point where a rat from a garbage dump is actually a pet. It could even be argued that this is an early example of Pynchon's "signal-in-the-noise" theme, which seems to run through all of his novels.
Another noteworthy element of this story is Flange's choice not to tell a sea story of his own for fear of ruining the special relationship he seems to have with the ocean. This suspicion of language is another theme that runs throughout the works of Pynchon, and is extremely reminiscent of Hemingway's idea that "You'll lose it if you talk about it."