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Revisiting a decades-old search for Thomas Pynchon

June 17, 2009 |  3:31 pm


In the late 1970s, a young journalist named Robert Goolrick got it into his head that he ought to find Thomas Pynchon, and he wrote an article about his strange and slightly obsessive search for a now-defunct magazine called New Times. He's the same Robert Goolrick whose first novel, "A Reliable Wife," debuted to much acclaim earlier this year, which may have helped writer Mark Athitakis, in turn, track him down.

Athitakis has posted Goolrick's entire article online, which has the kinds of turns -- including a visit to a psychic and a dark night observing marginal human behavior -- that appear in Pynchon's novels. And his pursuit of the famous recluse soon took on the mystical shades of the author's work, too:

I knew that the usual roads would not find him, people a lot more clever than I had tried them all, and that, in the end, there was nothing I wanted to ask him; it didn’t matter in the slightest to me how many ice cubes he liked in his drinks,whether or not he snorted the incredibly long lines of cocaine one feels dribbling off the pages of Gravity’s Rainbow, or where he lived now or what secret dark facts he held about his apple-pie boyhood. So I looked for alternate routes, ways not so trampled. I looked, I suppose, for a miracle of belief, that some other thing existed and could be found and touched and finally known....

In Pynchon I had chosen a love that was possible because it had no object, merely an extended longing for a body that could not be found or desired, having no height, no weight, no texture I would ever know....

Now Goolrick, who went on to spend almost 30 years as an adman, says, "I just started out calling people, and finding out what I could find out. I wasn’t really a journalist. I’m not an investigative reporter, so it was kind of abstract from the beginning, and it became more abstract as it went along, as you can tell."

In 1978, he wrote:

Everything began to seem infinitely detailed. The smallest gesture, the least meaningful sign would catch my eye as if it were all happening just for me, had been put in front of only my eyes. Everything in the present, all systems operating simultaneously in the front of the mind, spreading layer after layer of infinitely textured life in front of you. The quiddity of life, these details all we have, the only signposts pointing in any direction, and these blurred and contradictory....

This idea of small incidents taking on greater meaning for the searcher, as though they're at the center of intersecting forces like the vortex of a V, seems to burble around Pynchon.

Picking up a thread from Goolrick's article and interview, I wondered if I could use an online database of public records to see whether Pynchon's father was still around (turns out he died in 1995). The search brought me to a page to links for his immediate family, and when I tried to click through on Tom Jr.'s name -- that's what, Goolrick says, Pynchon's mother called him -- the page didn't load.

It was as if the universe simply couldn't deliver hard information about the author Thomas Pynchon. Or perhaps a clever cabal of programmers had done some scripting to make sure his complete anonymity was preserved. Either way, the not-loading Pynchon page is so Pynchonian that I won't bother to try the search again, lest the results be more routine the next time around. 

Some time after the article was published, Goolrick says, he was at home getting ready to head out for dinner when the phone rang.

I picked it up and said hello, and this guy said, “My name is…” I can’t remember his name. He said, “You don’t know me, but I’m a private investigator in San Francisco. And I happened to read your article about Thomas Pynchon. And he said, “In connection with some other case I’m investigating, I happened to find out where Thomas Pynchon lives. I found out everything about him, and I just thought you might want the information.” I said OK, so he gave me Pynchon’s address, Pynchon’s phone number, Pynchon’s driver’s license number. He was in California, apparently. The conversation went on for a long time. I hung up the phone, went out to dinner, and after a while I thought, “Who was that on the phone?” And it occurred to me that maybe it was Pynchon himself who called.

Not that he could ever know for sure. And preserving that mystery seems to be better than finding the man himself. "I never called or looked up the address. It seems regrettable, all these years later," Goolrick told Athitakis. "But by that time I realized that there was nothing to be gotten out of him. There was nothing for him except his work." 

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo credit: fotologic via Flickr