The Rocket

Mason & Dixon


By David Streitfeld
Washington Post, October 21, 1996

Henry Holt is unveiling this week Thomas Pynchon's new novel, at least to the extent of giving it a name ("Mason &Dixon") and a month of publication (next April). Details surrounding Pynchon's publishing plans are often as cloaked in mystery as the writer himself; the last known photograph dates from his boot camp yearbook, and he's famously never given an interview.
This much seems clear: He's had "Mason &Dixon" in mind and maybe in his typewriter ever since "Gravity's Rainbow" came out in 1973. Newsweek reported 18 years ago that Pynchon was working on a book about the Mason-Dixon line, the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland drawn shortly before the Revolutionary War.
Holt is planning for a first printing in the neighborhood of 200,000 copies, which means it believes the work will be a No. 1 bestseller. Even if the final figure is somewhat lower, the 59-year-old Pynchon is one of very few members of the '60s avant-garde who continues to generate anything close to mass excitement. Kurt Vonnegut and William Burroughs are more or less in retirement, while John Barth and Joseph Heller no longer burn up the sales charts.
But Pynchon even has acolytes -- folks who, in their zeal, resemble Kennedy assassination buffs. A group of them has now published "The Letters of Wanda Tinasky," a $25 paperback being sold mostly by mail order from the Anderson Valley Advertiser, a weekly newspaper in the Northern California town of Boonville. The reason: The letters might have been written by Pynchon.
Wanda Tinasky was a faithful writer of letters to the Advertiser during the late '80s, a period when Pynchon was writing his 1990 Northern California novel, "Vineland." Perhaps he was living in the area, doing on-location research; perhaps he even was the chatty, zany bag lady that Tinasky claimed to be. Tinasky, whom no one has ever met, hasn't been heard from since the speculation began in earnest.
"Well, if it ain't Pynchon, it's someone who has him down cold: his inimitable literary style, his deep but lightly worn erudition, his countercultural roots, his leftist/populist politics, his brand of wit and humor, his encyclopedic range of reference, his street smarts and raffish charm, his immersion in pop culture and sports, and his hatred of all agents of repression," Pynchon scholar Steven Moore writes in a foreword to the letters.
Well, maybe. Tinasky's style is not one that everyone will appreciate. An extract: "I was in New York trying to find a publisher for various literary properties, primarily [for] my memoir, `As God Is My Witness,' but it seems like all my contacts are deceased or worse, & I had nothing but trouble. I did get an audition for my musical comedy, `Immy Lou,' but right in the middle of my big number, `Don't Cry for Me, Filipinos,' they threw me out on my imperial White Russian ass, & actually the whole damn trip was a bringdown & I'm not feeling so great even though it is great to be back under the bridge, & I sort of wish that instead of taking that trip to Palm Beach I had saved money & rented a room this winter."
The book of letters is careful to state that Pynchon's wife and agent, Melanie Jackson, has denied the novelist was Tinasky. But that, as Moore notes, is precisely the response you would expect.
As for the new book that is unquestionably by Pynchon, "Mason & Dixon" is a reimagining of the lives of British surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon. According to one description, it features Native Americans, frontier folk, ripped bodices, naval warfare, erotic and political conspiracies, and major caffeine abuse. At over a thousand pages in manuscript, it's probably about many other things, too.

©Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company