The Hamster
Fragments of vessels broken at the Creation

Fictional Works
On this page, you will find a catalog of Pynchon’s published fiction along with a brief commentary on each work. The books are listed in chronological order, and the editions mentioned are those which are currently in print in the United States. Additionally, after each novel, you will find a link to an additional page that gathers together a wealth of materials such as links, reviews, and papers based on that particular work.

Slow Learner
Mortality and Mercy in Vienna
V.
The Crying of Lot 49
Gravity's Rainbow
Vineland
Mason & Dixon
Against the Day
Inherent Vice

Complete Bibliography
Those wishing a comprehensive bibliography of all Pynchon's works, including articles, essays, liner notes, and translations, may follow the link below.

Spermatikos Logos Pynchon Bibliography


Slow Learner

(Stories: 1958-1964)

Back Bay Books of Little, Brown & Company, 1984, ISBN 0-316-72443-2; Paperback, $13.95. [Browse/Purchase]

Slow Learner is a collection of five short stories written between 1958 and 1964 and prefaced with a lengthy introduction by Thomas Pynchon himself. Often considered "apprentice work," the stories clearly show the development of his unique style, and more than a few touch upon subjects that would become major themes throughout the rest of his work: interaction between social classes, conflict with authority, tension between the sexes, and understanding the nature of entropy.
Based on Pynchon's introduction, one may get the impression that no greater sins were ever committed in the world of literature than his early stories. Pynchon pulls no punches in his analysis of his earlier work, and he takes an almost malicious pleasure in dissecting each one under the uncompromising glare of his maturity. As Pynchon himself would have it, each story is apparently useful only in tracing his development as a writer, and the primary value of the collection is merely instructional, a document of exercises in flawed technique -- hence its sardonic title. Don't, however, allow Pynchon's harsh self-criticism dissuade you from reading them. As Edward Mendelson states in the blurb on the back cover, "the apprentice work of a major novelist makes better reading than the mature productions of a dozen minor ones." I personally think Pynchon’s spate of self-criticism serves as something of a public confession, a canny act of contrition that allows him to present these stories free from the pangs of guilt. Some are, after all, quite good.
The first story,"The Small Rain," (Cornell Writer, 1958) is loosely based on a real incident in Louisiana, where the Army was called out to assist in the cleanup of a hurricane. It tells the tale of one Lardass Levine, an intellectual slacker serving his time in the Army and caught in a transitional phase about "where to put his loyalties." Although Pynchon states that "most of what I dislike about my writing is present here in embryo, as well as in more advanced forms," it’s likewise true that there's much present here in embryo of what is good about Pynchon's writing. Even in this, his first published story, one can recognize a theme that would become one of Pynchon's major leitmotifs -- sympathy with the "preterite," the common mass of humanity, whom "while in theory capable of idiocy, are much more apt to display competence, courage, humanity, wisdom, and other virtues associated, by the educated classes, with themselves." It also somewhat dutifully punches the literary clock on the sex and death issues, both of which hover constantly in the background, working their slow changes on Levine.
The second story is "Low-lands," (New World Writing 1960) which centers on Dennis Flange, an aging sailor who has resolved himself to attempt a certain level of domesticity on land. Unfortunately, his intimate relationship to the sea has deeply mystical reverberations in both his heart and soul . . . it has also grafted itself to an erotic matrix that has more substance in adolescent fantasy than in reality. His attempt to reconcile a landlubbing life, which includes a relationship with a mature woman, with his sense of loss is a source of tension that finds a most interesting resolution. This story -- which Pynchon calls the product of "a smart-assed jerk who didn't know any better" -- is my favorite in the collection. There are some beautiful passages that anticipate the command of imagery displayed in Gravity's Rainbow, and it also introduces us to the semi-mythical Pig Bodine, the archetypical drunken sailor and jolly miscreant who would later strike up unique friendships with Benny Profane of V., as well as Tyrone Slothrop and Roger Mexico of Gravity’s Rainbow.
The third story, "Entropy," (Kenyon Review 1960) is his most anthologized and most widely read short story, and also the one for which he reserves his harshest criticism. It is a highly conceptual story that uses the theme of entropy to frame the parallel stories of Meatball Mulligan and Callisto, two very different men who live in the same apartment building. Callisto is something of a recluse, having exiled himself to a self-created artificial environment which serves as a virtual prison. He’s obsessed with the idea of entropy as a philosophical metaphor for a "heat death" of culture. Having seen two world wars, he has seemingly internalized the Laws of Thermodynamics, and as a result has a generally gloomy "world weary Middle-European" disposition. Directly below him, however, a microcosm for entropy plays itself out as Meatball's "lease-breaking" party drunkenly unwinds itself into its third consecutive day. The discussions of the partygoers unknowingly mirror the different meanings and ramifications of entropy as they themselves progress to a more chaotic state. The story follows both systems, above and below, as they each approach a crisis point that demands a thermodynamic resolution. Though the ending may be a touch melodramatic, it is nevertheless a fine story.
The forth story in the collection is "Under the Rose," (The Noble Savage, 1961) and is notable as being the first time Pynchon employed a Baedeker's guide as a fetish for invoking the Muse. Set at the end of the Nineteenth century, the story follows a pair English spies, Porpentine and Goodfellow, and their intrigues in Cairo. The atmosphere is ripe with a Victorian sense of adventure, and the characters exist in a universe where the "apocalyptic showdown" looming on the horizon is more likely to be determined by the actions of individual personalities -- cloak and dagger stuff -- than by the "statistical" decisions of nations. Pynchon declares that he is "less annoyed" with this story, and indeed he resurrected and reconstructed it as one of the chapters in his first novel, V.
The final story in the collection is perhaps the sharpest, and certainly one of the most original. Called "The Secret Integration," (The Saturday Evening Post 1964) it was written after V. was published, and shows a knowledge of a dusty, open America that has much in common with the Beats. As Pynchon states, it is informed by the "American nonverbal reality;" an open space haunted by "Greyhound voices and fleabag motels." The story takes place in the Berkshires -- in what would eventually become Slothrop's home town in Gravitys Rainbow -- and details the adventures of a group of very exceptional children as they spin some rather outrageous plots against the adults. There is a bit of a surreal feeling to the story, and as the plot develops, one quickly begins to sense that something strange is going on. There is a clear barrier between their pre-adolescent world and the strange and confusing world of adults, and the children seem to have tapped into some strange energy created by the tensions of that boundary. They almost seem to be hiding something....

Mortality and Mercy in Vienna

(1959)

London: Aloes Books, ISBN 0-85652-023-3; Pamphlet, $15.00. [Special Order]

First appearing in the Spring 1959 edition of Cornell's Epoch, this is Pynchon's second published short story.

V.

(1963)

1. Buccaneer Books,1997, ISBN 1568493215, Harcover, $49.95. [Browse/Purchase]

2. Harper Collins "Perennial Classics" edition, 1999, ISBN 0-06-093021-7; Paperback, $15.00. [Browse/Purchase]

In which the yo-yo string is revealed as a state of mind
A page of useful links to material about V.

V. is Pynchon's first novel. Published in 1963, it won the William Faulkner Foundation First Novel Award, and immediately established Pynchon as a Talent to Watch -- a promise which he'd more than fulfill a decade later.
Indeed, V. is in many ways a precursor to Gravity's Rainbow, and it clearly shows Pynchon's growth as a writer from his short story years. V. is a sprawling novel, filled with a colorful cast of characters whose various adventures and interactions range across a century. Despite their overwhelming numbers, Pynchon takes great care in investing each character with a remarkable degree of depth and vibrancy, and even the most incidental of them are painted with just enough detail to make them believable. It also highlights his developing skill at juxtaposing opposites to achieve a satirical effect -- the comic and the tragic, the sacred and the profane, the meaningful and the meaningless. Many of the themes that would be explored more thoroughly in Gravity's Rainbow are first visited here, and some of the characters and situations featured in the latter work are first introduced in V.
It is difficult to actually describe V. Taking the year 1956 as its "present," the book alternates between this time period and various episodes set in years ranging from 1898 to 1944. The episodes are not chronological, however they do frequently involve the same characters. Imagine a snapshot taken of the twentieth century and the years just preceding it, a magical photograph that encompasses the whole globe and spans nearly 60 years. Due to the wondrous nature of this snapshot, we can trace the life of a single person as they move through time and space; and at various points, we can observe the impact they have on their surroundings as well the effects their actions have on the others around them. We are able to see causes and effects laid out all at once, as if we're looking at a film spread out in front of us rather than viewing it frame by frame. Like gods, we can sort out the tangle of relationships, looking for patterns, similarities, and root causes; and, from this omniscient viewpoint, we also see that certain people almost perfectly embody their indigenous time and place, while others seem lost, misplaced....
V. is a work that internalizes this idea as something akin to a hidden structure or an inner landscape. And yet, because it is only a book, we must read it one page at a time, and we can only follow the actions of a handful of characters. But though V. limits itself to only a specific group of people and their permutations, it does not constrain itself to complete linearity. Instead we focus on individual scenes at different times and places in this "snapshot," like taking random samplings of data to create a statistical picture of the whole pattern.
Central to the novel are two very opposite characters. The first we meet is Benny Profane, a discharged Navy man. Benny considers himself something of a loser, a "schlemihl," and spends most of his time drifting from one hard-luck situation into an other. A man who lives completely in the here and now, in many ways he typifies what Pynchon terms the "preterite," and those who have read his short stories will immediately recognize him, for we've met his brothers before in Lardass Levine, Dennis Flange, and Meatball Mulligan, and we will meet his descendants in Tyrone Slothrop and Zoyd Wheeler. Frequently described as a human yo-yo, Benny is at odds with a world he largely considers inanimate -- the world of objects takes no pity on schlemihls. Indeed, one of Benny's fears is that people, too, can become inanimate, drifting along the path to dehumanization in varying degrees of complicity. Indeed, this is one of the central issues of the book itself, and is reformulated throughout V. by almost all the characters, including members of The Whole Sick Crew, Benny's sometimes circle of friends. While a fairly cheerful lot, none of whom would feel out of place at Meatball Mulligan's Lease-breaking party, The Crew nevertheless are emblematic of artistic decadence -- a lost generation, they seem more content with sterile arguments about life than actually living it.
The other character is more complex than Profane, but is farther removed from the experiences of common fellows like Profane and the Crew. His name is Herbert Stencil, a man who is obsessed with unravelling the diaries of his father, a diplomat and spy from the British Foreign Office. Caught in the latter half of the twentieth century, the grim and edgy Stencil lives his father's life vicariously through a quest for V., an enigmatic figure mentioned in his diaries. With cheerless and occasionally flagging determination, Stencil travels the world, interviewing anyone who may hold a key to his quest. Unfortunately for him, he finds that the past means increasingly less to people, and as entropy takes over, it blurs and obscures past relationships, past alliances, and even past lessons. It is this self-imposed quest that drives the episodic parts of the novel, shifting its focus through time and space. We are also never quite sure if these episodes are "objective" narrative, or have becomes "Stencilized," tales distorted by Stencil's obsession with V.
But who, or what, is V.? All throughout the novel, the initial V. emerges as a symbol for something to be pursued, to be wooed and won, to be cherished, to be possessed, or to be regained -- but never to any avail. According to Stencil's "episodes," his V. would seem to be a mysterious woman, deliberately pursuing the path of the Inanimate as the old order gives painful birth to the horrors and exhaustions of Modernity. Siren-like, exerting a thrall over men and women alike, she seems to contain the opposing forces of stagnation and riot in a pressurized alembic, appearing at historical moments of decadence and revolution. And yet her motives are unclear; and even her nature and identity seem indeterminate, like a quantum particle holding within the secrets of wave and particle, subverting any attempts at definition with a blurring of properties. By the end of the work, even Stencil himself admits, "V. was by this time a remarkable scattered concept." A mistress, a mother, a whore or a priestess? But always female -- even when she may be a lost geographical Eden named Vheissu, she is considered in female terms. Like the exiled Shekinah, or the female half of God the gnostics called Sophia and the Qabalists believed was imprisoned in the matrix of the physical universe, V. seems more like a lost promise than an actual figure. Perhaps Stencil is entranced by the act of creating V.? One deluded character goes so far as to project V. onto a sewer rat, investing her with the promise of a new millenium. Is it possible that V. is a mirage, representing only desire itself, driving -- like the merciless convergence of its twin spokes -- the quest for possessing something ultimately unattainable? Or, to view it in reverse, is V symbolic of the many ways that paths diverge and blur as they radiate from a given locus?
Though her historical identity as a single woman seems to emerge from Stencil's perspective, we are nevertheless offered different possibilities at different timesA mysterious woman, a riot-obsessed mistress, a potential mother? A sexy Catholic sewer rat? A lost Eden? A very fascinating novel, and almost a prerequisite read for Gravity's Rainbow. That said, however, I would also remark that it can come across as being a bit too sprawling and unfocused, and unlike GR, it lacks a certain consistency of vision that carries the reader effortlessly from one chapter to the next.

The Crying of Lot 49

(1966)

1. Buccaneer Books,1997, ISBN 1568493207, Harcover, $32.95. [Browse/Purchase]

2. Harper Collins "Perennial Classics" edition, 1999, ISBN 0-06-093167-1; Paperback, $12.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Shall I project a world?
Links and materials for Pynchon's second novel.

Short, straightforward in narrative, and relatively linear in plot, The Crying of Lot 49 is considered by many to be Pynchon's most accessible novel, and is therefore the one most commonly read, whether to fulfill the syllabus of a literature course or simply for pleasure. Nevertheless, it remains an enigmatic book that has been analyzed, discussed, and dissected almost as much as Gravity's Rainbow. Even thirty years after publication it is still considered quite open to interpretation: some critics feel that it is ultimately meaningless and impossible to interpret, while others have found it to be rather cohesive, and even possessed by a set of ethical directives. Others, as J. Grant remarks, perhaps mindful of Oedipa's notion that "excluded middles" are "bad shit," have worked to find a functional interface between book and reader. All, however, agree that it is a vital work and a postmodern classic.
So what's it all about?
The plot is rather simple. Oedipa Maas, a practical but restless woman married to a disc jockey, finds out that she has been made the executor of the estate of Pierce Invararity, a rich industrialist and the subject of a past fling. Confused but curious, she travels to San Narciso (A mythologized city in California) in order to carry out her duties. But almost at once she discovers that things are not what they seem. Soon she begins to suspect that she has stumbled upon a conspiracy -- a vast, perhaps global conspiracy that involves Inverarity, his lawyers, the employees of Yoyodyne . . . and maybe even her husband and analyst. Driven by a will she hardly knew she possessed, and haunted by an impending sense of revelation, Oedipa decides to penetrate to the heart of the enigma. Eventually she merges into an underworld of broken, lonely souls, cynical playwrights and mysterious booksellers; a shadowy "alternate America" where coincidences accumulate suspiciously and the postal system takes on sinister overtones. Is it coincidence or conspiracy -- or a cruel joke? And as the mystery deepens, she edges perilously close to a downward spiral of self-doubt and paranoia....
On the most basic level, The Crying of Lot 49 can be read as an intellectual thriller or a postmodern mystery. The narrative is consistent, the plot moves along rapidly, and the point of view remains stable. But a reading confined to this surface level does little justice to either the book or the reader, and may lead to much frustration rather than enjoyment. The text is almost completely "open," and readers who are looking for a single interpretation are setting themselves up for failure. Even after several readings one finds that the novel deliberately evades solutions -- indeed, this is one of the hallmarks of Pynchon's unique style. Like a classical physicist who attempts to explain quantum-level observations with Newtonian mechanics, a reader who demands certainty will find the structure of the work itself acting to confound and dismiss him. Almost every question raised by the novel seems to generate two contradictory solutions; and almost every perception experienced by its characters is clouded by a built-in Uncertainty Principle. The book must be approached from an open, more "modern" perspective: like a quantum physicist's view of light, we must hold two mutually exclusive ideas at once until an observation conjures a "reality" into being -- and unlike Oedipa, we may never make that ultimate observation. Therefore, at the core level, the book poses the question, what is reality? -- something we project in our head, or is it something that stands immutable? As Oedipa grapples with these questions -- at the risk of her sanity -- the evasive structure of the novel forces the reader to confront them as well. Her plight becomes our plight; what is denied to her by the power structure of San Narciso is denied to us by the novel structure of Thomas Pynchon. As with Schrödinger's fabled cat, The Crying of Lot 49 exists inside a Black Box, and Pynchon refuses to pop the lid and resolve our uncertainty.

Gravity's Rainbow

(1973)

1. Viking, 1973, ISBN 0-670-34832-5; Hardcover $25.00. Out of Print.

2. Penguin, 1995, ISBN 0-14-018859-2; Paperback $16.95. [Browse/Purchase]

3. Penguin, 2000, ISBN 0-14-028338-2; Paperback $20.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Infected with the prevailing fondness out here for mindless pleasures
This section focuses on Gravity's Rainbow. Among other things, it contains a complete episode-by-episode summary, an introduction for the first-time reader, and a structural analysis.

Considered by most to be Pynchon's greatest work, Gravity's Rainbow is one of the most celebrated -- and notorious -- novels of the twentieth century. Crammed with countless allusions that range from rocket physics to pop culture, organized along a structure that satirizes the liturgical calendar while paradoxically drawing power from its symbolism, and stubbornly resisting any definite interpretation, Gravity's Rainbow has achieved the status of a postmodern masterpiece, if not a modern Moby Dick or Ulysses. The plot is complex and ingenious, the narrative is remarkably inventive, the cast of characters huge and unforgettably unique, and the themes explored by the novel seem to cover every aspect of human life. It would be impossible to do justice to this masterpiece with a simple entry here; and therefore a special area of Spermatikos Logos is dedicated specifically to this book. The Gravity's Rainbow Guide Page includes a complete summary, an introduction for first time readers, and a structural analysis. For our purposes here, we will be content with a small tease of the basic plot:
Set in the closing months of World War II, Gravity's Rainbow follows the adventures of one American soldier with the unlikely name of Tyrone Slothrop. Initially stationed in London, Tyrone weathers the V-2 rocket bombardment in an inexplicable way that attracts the attention of quite a few people, some of which have less than honorable intentions. As the plot develops, Tyrone's travels take him through an amazing array of encounters, tribulations, and adventures, all taking place in a shifting network of alliances . . . and all transpiring under the shadow of the Rocket.
Right . . . you know, and Ulysses is about two guys and their day, and Moby Dick is about a whale. Go read this book.

Vineland

(1990)

1. Little Brown, 1990, Paperback. Out of Print.

1. Penguin, 1997, ISBN 0-14-118063-3; Paperback, $15.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Vineland the Good
Links, guides, and reviews for Vineland, Pynchon's often underappreciated novel of the Eighties.

There have been few books in the modern literary community to have been more eagerly anticipated than Vineland. Gravity's Rainbow had taken people by surprise, and for good or ill, it was undeniably one of the Most Important Books of the Seventies, if not the latter half of the century. All eyes were on the reclusive Thomas Pynchon -- what would he write next? And, as the years went by, excitement mounted . . . what would he write next, and why was it taking him seventeen years?! Rumor had it that he was writing a huge novel about the Civil War. Some said it was a novel about California. Others were expecting perhaps some sort of sequel to Gravity's Rainbow.
What no one was really expecting was Vineland, a fairly short, essentially straightforward novel about an aging hippie and his free-spirited daughter. This was it?! was the anguished cry. Seventeen years for only 385 pages? Indeed, Vineland has achieved the dubious status of being Pynchon's Most Maligned Work. It was a let-down, a disappointment; it didn't live up to the promise of Gravity's Rainbow; it was trivial, crammed with pop culture references and populated by unbelievable characters....
Bah, I say, Bah! Vineland is a small masterpiece, a truly great American novel that, while not as groundbreaking or expansive as Gravity's Rainbow, is more focused and pointed that anything Pynchon's ever written. It is humane, compassionate, funny and profound, and it says more about American culture than could a dozen copies of DeLillo's White Noise and a few months of touring with the Grateful Dead. In fact, I contend that Vineland is among the best novels of the 1990s, and once you separate the sense of hyped-up disappointment from the novel as a thing-in-itself, a truly remarkable work is revealed, sparkling clearly in the California sun.
The story is set in the fictional town of Vineland, a redwood community nestled in a realismo-mágico California, a terrain already visited by The Crying of Lot 49. Vineland is a place where all currents of American life lazily intersect, where a sense of technological fetishization shares space with a rugged back-to-nature pioneering spirit, where the line between cults, communities, and extended families are blurred, and where money and power implicitly corrode the sense of freedom and liberty at the heart of the American dream.
The plot is fairly simple. Zoyd Wheeler is a single father, an old hippie doing his best to raise his free-spirited daughter, Prairie. He is still very much in love with his ex-wife, Frenesi, who left Zoyd and their young daughter many years ago, for reasons that slowly emerge as the novel takes shape. The story is set in motion when old ghosts from Zoyd's previous life suddenly materialize in his idyllic world, precipitating a situation in which Prairie is forced to confront and understand her mother's desertion. Like Stencil in V., Prairie sets off on a quest to find Frenesi, encountering some very unusual people along the way, each with their own story to tell. As Prairie gradually assembles the pieces of her mother's jigsaw life, an image of an extended American family begins to form, three generations of a family at war with their society, their government, and themselves.
Though Vineland is one of Pynchon's most accessible novels, it nevertheless has its own intriguing and ultimately rewarding complexities. As with all of Pynchon's fiction, one cannot grasp the whole all at once, and Vineland is careful not to reveal things in a strictly linear fashion. Three generations and their many interconnections form quite a substantial narrative web, and for the most part, we are forced to construct the story along with young Prairie. A book that bears a second reading, not until the very end do we really see the Big Picture. Also typical of Pynchon's writing, there are numerous stylistic pitfalls to snare the unwary: stories nested within stories, unpredictable leaps into fantasy, and a narrative point of view that tends to shift gears unexpectedly. In the end, however, Vineland emerges as a seamlessly crafted work, and like V. and Lot 49, one that allows a certain openness in the interpretation of several key events.
Yet more so than narrative or structure, the complexity of Vineland lies in the emotional core of its subject matter. Of course, typical Pynchonian themes may be readily identified: the ambiguity of interpretation, the multifold nature of love, the relationship of the individual to power, and the effect of control upon individuals, both those who exercise it and its subjects. But more so than in any other work before Vineland, Pynchon deals with these issues with a greater clarity, wit, and compassion. The characters of Vineland are portrayed not in the black-and-white context of "Us vs. Them," but are seen as morally complex human beings situated in an ambiguous network of power relationships. In Vineland, the forces of Us and Them are internalized, representing the collected weight of personal choices: two sides of the same coin, within every "Us" are the seeds of "They." The best moments in the novel are when characters must confront the forces of compromise, belief, and regret that result from their various decisions, and Pynchon has never handled this with more poignancy and understanding. Even the government is decentralized to the point of invisibility, and while its power may be both omnipresent and malignant, it flows from person to person along the conduits of their own decisions.
If Vineland seems to suggest that Good and Evil are fictions of perspective, it does offer a small bridge across the moral vacuum in the form of community. While communities and families certainly come with their own systems of power, abuse, and control, they also bring love -- at least with family, there is love; that power which in Pynchon is always transcendent.

Mason & Dixon

(Stories: 1958-1964)

(1997)

1. Henry Holt & Co., 1997, ISBN: 0-8050-3758-6; Hardcover, $27.50. [Browse/Purchase]

2. Henry Holt & Co., 1998, ISBN: 0-8050-5837-0; Paperback, $17.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Often causing future strangers to remember them as Dixon and Mason
This section focuses on Pynchon's latest work, the epic Mason & Dixon.

Although the Quail thinks Mason & Dixon is the best American novel of the Nineties, Dr Daw feels somewhat differently. Until the Quail gets his act together for a review of his own, here's Larry Daw's Review.

Against the Day

(2006)

Penguin Press, 2006, ISBN 159420120X; 1120 Pages, Hardcover $35.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Pynchon dropped a bomb in 2006 with this massive work, a book so big in every sense that almost every word spoken for and against it has a point. The Modern Word celebrated the event with its Against the Day Countdown, featuring Erik Ketzan’s review of the first 25 pages and the Quail’s review of the book as seen from one-quarter of the way in.


Inherent Vice

(2009)

Penguin Press, 2009, ISBN 1594202249; 1120 Pages, Hardcover $27.95. [Browse/Purchase]

To be released August 4, 2009, described as, "Part noir, part psychedelic romp, all Thomas Pynchon — private eye Doc Sportello comes, occasionally, out of a marijuana haze to watch the end of an era as free love slips away and paranoia creeps in with the L.A. fog." See more over at Tim Ware’s excellent ThomasPynchon.com.


--Allen B. Ruch & Erik Ketzan
May 2009


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