Sunday, March 22, 2009

Pynchon at the Ship Channel: Another Unsolved Houston Mystery

Some weeks back, before we were forced to temporarily suspend blogurbatin’ here at Slampo’s Place due to a, um, conflict with the tax-collecting agency (and other crazy-making but passing vexations), we posted, in conjunction with the publication of a new biography of Donald Barthelme, a choice passage from an appreciation of Barthelme penned in the early 1990s by Sr. Thomas Pynchon. The Pynchon essay appeared as an introduction to a posthumous collection of Barthelme’s works and spoke rather poignantly, we thought, to what Pynchon described as his fellow scribbler’s long “love-hate affair” with Houston, where he was reared, grew to adulthood (a ’hood that included a stint as a critic on the long-since-expired newspaper out on the freeway, before it was out the freeway, the same publication whose other illustrious alumni include seminal local blogger Banjo Jones) and to which he returned, at least part time, before his death in 1989. We discerned a larger truth in Pynchon’s take on Barthelme’s “affair” with Houston, because we don’t know anyone with at least half a brain (arbitrary percentage) who’s lived here longer than, say, 5 years (arbitrary length of residency) who isn’t at least deeply ambivalent about the place (that is to say, has come to the realization that Houston has its charms, aside from the cheap cost of living [which, of course, stems from the town’s historical reliance on cheap labor], although these things are usually unadvertised and make themselves known over time, while also recognizing that Houston can be a colossal pain in the rear, not only on a grand damning metaphysical scale but in the mere day-to-day gettin’-along sense).

Anyhoo, it had occurred to us when we first read the Pynchon essay many years ago that Pynchon possessed more than a cursory knowledge of Houston, like he had spent some time here in the ’60s, visiting a girlfriend, perhaps, or maybe he had used Baghdad-on-the-Bayou as a port of call on his way down to Mexico, where he reportedly was known to hang. Whatever the case, his essay on Barthelme exhibited a pronounced knowingness about the town. Shortly after the above-mentioned post we received an email from our pal Il Pinguino, one of the city’s most accomplished belle letterists, mentioning that he had been told by a professor acquaintance that Pynchon had actually lived for a spell in Houston back in the ’60s. On further questioning, Il determined that the notion was set in proximate motion by Larry McMurtry and was mentioned in his recent non-fiction book, Books, a run-through of McMurtry’s days as a book dealer in Houston, the Bay Area, D.C. and now Archer City. (The prof also pointed out to Il that Buffalo Bayou is mentioned in one of the sing-alongs that punctuate Gravity’s Rainbow; this would have meant nothing to us when we read the book 35 years ago during the many slack hours in our seafaring days with Arthur Levy Boat Co. of Morgan City, La.)

We checked out Books from our fine Houston Public Library System---it is, by the way, an oddly flat and joyless tome, but perhaps only in light of our stereotyped expectations of the eccentrics who trade in the antiquarian book racket---and sure enough, the Pynchon-in-Houston tale is told therein by McMurtry, albeit in a curious, tossed-off manner. We have returned the book, not wishing to fall into arrears with another public agency, but if we remember correctly the highly inconclusive story went something like this: McMurtry writes he "may" missed his chance to meet the publicity-shy (which is a whole different thing than “reclusive,” the usual adjective applied to Pynchon) writer, who was "said" to be living "somewhere near the Ship Channel" when McMurtry was teaching at Rice in the mid-'60s (McMurtry’s Rice-area residence being the site of an infamous 1964 visit by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters as they wended their way to the New York World’s Fair on their psychedelic bus, a visit immortalized by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, during which an acid-addled Prankster whom Wolfe called “Stark Naked” streaked nude from the bus and maternally pressed her “skinny breast” to McMurtry’s young son, future distinguished singer-songwriter James, whom Ms. Naked had mistaken for her own spawn*).

So where were we? Yeah, this story of McMurtry’s: He also relates that that Pynchon was "said" to need work and that he had sent Pynchon a "note" mentioning that he might be able to arrange something for him in the local grove of academia, but Pynchon replied with a "note" of his own declining the offer (and thank Baby Jesus for that). Why they didn’t get together for aperitifs is left unexplained, but it couldn’t have been that difficult, since the distance between West U and the Ship Channel is not that great, at least miles-wise. McMurtry apparently did not keep the note from Pynchon, the auction of which today might finance the purchase of a sizable lot of used books. Then again, McMurtry rounds out the story by saying it's possible that neither note was actually sent. Hmmm. Maybe it was all a dream, or he misremembers.

That was pretty much it---no explanation of why Pynchon might have been living by the Ship Channel, or where, or what year(s) specifically this might have been. If it was in ’64 or ’65, then Pynchon wouldn’t exactly have been a struggling unknown, as V. had been published in 1963 and won that year’s Faulkner Prize. Next up, in 1966, would be The Crying of Lot 49---is it possible that Pynchon wrote some of the small classic American treatise on paranoia while holed up in some sailor-man’s boarding house on Navigation?

We are a Pynchon fan, not a Pynchon obsessive (we plan to get around to reading the 1,000-plus-page Against the Day one day, most certainly if we find our self with a lot of time on our hands while pulling a prison stretch for tax evasion), so it’s possible that the Pynchon-in-Houston story has been well-hashed over on the Pynchon mailing list, or elsewhere that obsessives electronically gather to obsess, and we simply were unaware of it. The only other mention we can find of a Pynchon-Houston connection, and it’s a fleeting and obscure one, is in this tongue-in-cheek (we think it is, anyway) essay that appeared in Harper’s in 2001 and links Barthelme to the bizarre “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” attack on his fellow former Houstonian, Dan Rather, on a New York City street in 1986.** This mention predates the McMurtry book but appeared long after Pynchon’s essay on Barthelme, so who knows:
Donald Barthelme is one of my literary heroes. Thomas Pynchon—no stranger to Houston, I might add—described Barthelme, lovingly, as “perhaps a species of anarchist curse.”
(The author of this piece, Paul Limbert Allman, appears not to have written much else in the way of paranoiac literary/crime theory but seems to be or was a writer of books for young adults, including one whose description sounds downright Pynchonesque. Hmmm.)

Other wispy emanations suggest that Pynchon is “no stranger” to Houston: the epigraph from 1990's Vineland comes from a song by the late Houston bluesman Johnny “Clyde” Copeland (“Every dog has its day, and a good dog just might have two”) and, as the authoritative PynchonWiki puts it, the author is “known to be a fan of Roky Erickson.” Maybe Pynchon saw ’em both, back in the day. The mind reels with possibility … it do!

Our own theory is that Pynchon, a Navy veteran who has always seemed deeply knowledgeable in the ways of the water, may have hung his hat here briefly while working as a deckhand or as a crew member of some vessel, perhaps an ocean-going one or one that plied the Ship Channel (as the late Sterling Morrison*** did some 20 years later), possibly to get away from the encroaching fame his first novel was bringing, or possibly to woodshed and write (and what better place to hide away than the east side of Houston in the 1960s!). We wonder whether Pynchon, who supposedly underwent orthodontic work in the 1960s, may have visited our Uncle Ansley the dentist, who made a modest living for many years fixing the teeth of longshoremen and seafarers out of his small office on Broadway.****

True or not, the Pynchon-in-Houston mystery nicely reflects the elusive nature of both the man and his work, and if he even lived here for just one cold, lonely month, that seals the deal: This is one World Class city! (We expect the first 3-day “Pynchon Festival” to get under way at Discovery Green by 2012, at the latest. BYOB.)

*"Everything connects," or so declares this Pynchon obsessive, whom we knew slightly back in '70 or '71 before he got a high lottery number, joined the Army and was sent to Korea, where he pulled duty in a typing pool, we believe.

**Everything connects!

***Everything etc!

****Everyth ...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised you didn't work in the fact that Morgan City, LA and our own Morgan's Point were named by the same man, Charles Morgan of the Morgan Steamship Line.

And in our experience, there are plenty of shotgun wielding paranoids along the ship channel. Material enough.