It is 1957 and the small town of Creole, Louisiana has been demolished by a recent hurricane. A joint rescue operation involving the Army, Navy, National Guard and Red Cross has been put into effect, and Private First Class Nathan "Lardass" Levine and the 131st Signal battalion of Fort Roach, Louisiana, of which he is a member of, have been called on to assist the effort. Lazy and lackadaisical, yet possessing the highest IQ in his battalion, Levine has spent the majority of his "career" dodging work details and nursing his impressive beer-belly, and this operation begins no differently than any other. He and his companions spend the first two days doing minimal work, watching the work details gather the dead, getting drunk and in sleeping late. However, the experience somehow affects Levine, and the third day finds him awake at 7:00 AM and sneaking into one of the clean-up work details. The group silently works for the entire day, collecting mangled and bloated corpses for embalming. At 6:00 PM Levine catches a ride back to the college, cleans up and goes out with a young coed he has met the day before. The next day, the communications set-up has been completed and, as he is allowed to leave, Levine hitches a ride back to Fort Roach with an anonymous PFC.
Pynchon on "The Small Rain"
Pynchon begins his self-criticism explaining that the hurricane his story takes place after really existed, and that a Navy companion who had been involved in the rescue operation had filled him in on the details. He then states that his writing was still in a stage of development, and as a result, "The Small Rain" -- his first published story -- featured a number of flaws. First of all, Pynchon points out his failure to notice that Levine's conflict over where to put his loyalties was strong enough to generate a story alone. To compensate for the supposed inadequacy, he felt it necessary to "literize" the work with an unneeded veil of rain images and references to "The Waste Land" and A Farewell to Arms.
He then draws attention to the embarrassing "case of Bad Ear marring much of the dialogue, especially toward the end" (Thomas Pynchon's Slow Learner, pg. 4). In attempting to incorporate his shaky understanding of regional Southern accents into the story, Pynchon complains that he allowed them to become an element of the plot before he had developed enough of an ear to properly do so.
The author also discusses the story's troubling treatment of mortality. He states that his was a problem common to younger writers: the subject is usually almost, but not quite dealt with. This is shown through how his characters in "The Small Rain" deal with death in adolescent ways. In his words, "They evade: they sleep late, they seek euphemisms. When they do mention death they try to make it with the jokes" (Thomas Pynchon's Slow Learner, pg. 5).
Finally, Pynchon explains the vagueness with which the sexual encounter at the end of his story is written, touching on the general nervousness about sex that existed in the college-age subculture at the time.
Despite the problems that Pynchon may have with his first work, it remains an inventive and enjoyable short story, and there are a few aspects about it worth discussing. First of all, the character of Nathan "Lardass" Levine is noticeably well developed, as is his problem. The juxtaposition of his lethargy and indifference upon his joining the work crews clearly shows how his conflict is resolved, however the permanence of Levine's change of ways is left unestablished. Despite the fact that he makes the decision to care, joining the cleanup of the dead directly, the last line of the story has Levine sleeping once again, on his way back to Fort Roach.
It is also interesting to note that "The Small Rain," despite being his first published story, showcases one of the elements central to Pynchon's writing style: that of mimesis. Even in his college years, the author had developed a taste for (somewhat) accurately showing the real world. The work is based on an a first-hand account of the post-hurricane rescue operation, and the military terminology that creeps into the story is an early indication of an attempt to get the facts straight.
Unfortunately, this attitude was checkered in Pynchon's youth, as shown by the small mistakes that pop up in some of the other Slow Learner stories, but it is still no surprise that the mimetic idea blossomed to the extent that it did in his later works.