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When Thomas Pynchon is just Tom: A remarkable collection debuts

May 5, 2011 |  2:08 pm

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Thomas Pynchon has surfaced in a remarkable book collection and the memories of his lifelong friend Phyllis Gebauer, who shared stories of one of America's most reclusive writers Wednesday night in Los Angeles.

The only known collection of signed first editions of Pynchon's works, a gift to the UCLA Extension Writers Program, debuted at an invitation-only event in Westwood. Although the exceedingly private author does not hold public book signings, he sent inscribed copies of each of his books as they were published to Phyllis and Fred Gebauer. The writer and the couple became friends in the early 1960s.

Most of Pynchon's inscriptions include personal comments. In "The Crying of Lot 49," Pynchon wrote, "For Fred and Phyllis, who saw this first, though we're still friends anyway. -- Tom." One, in "Gravity's Rainbow," includes an illustration of a smiling pig, harking back to a piñata the Gebauers brought him as a gift when they were all living in Southern California.

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Phyllis Gebauer was at the event to discuss the books, her friendship with Pynchon -- whom she calls "Tom" -- and the collection, which she hopes will fund scholarships to the UCLA Extension Writers Program where Gebauer has taught for more than two decades.

Gebauer talked to Pynchon extensively about the gift. "When Tom lived in L.A. he did a lot of research at the UCLA research library," she said. "He likes the idea of these books being used to fund scholarships." The two spoke on the phone for 90 minutes Tuesday, she said. Pynchon followed up with a fax, which Gebauer read to Wednesday night's audience.

"I was planning to skydive into the middle of these proceedings," joked Pynchon, who didn't even attend the National Book Awards when "Gravity's Rainbow" won in 1974. "Thank you for your teaching," he continued. "Good work and good vibes to everybody there."

The relationship between Pynchon and the Gebauers was based on a strange combination: a shared reticence paired with playfulness. And a fondness for charades.

In the early 1960s, Phyllis was a Spanish teacher in Seattle, married to Fred Gebauer, a mechanical engineer doing work at Boeing he couldn't discuss. At a party celebrating a mutual friend's new piano, the two met Pynchon, a technical writer working for another part of Boeing. Pynchon and Fred clowned around by reaching into the piano and plucking out the Yogi Bear theme song on its strings -- "which did not delight the host," Phyllis Gebauer said Wednesday night.

Fred couldn't talk about his work, and Pynchon never mentioned he was writing a novel -- instead, they  talked and joked and Phyllis made lasagna and they played charades. "He's a great charades player," Phyllis said. "He's great at puns. They're awful."

Fred and Phyllis only learned that Pynchon had been working on a novel when he sent them a copy of his first book, "V," published in 1963.

The Gebauers' lives separated from Pynchon's. Phyllis, in a "mini-memoir" distributed at the event, wrote that aerospace workers of the era were called " 'aero-braceros,' because they changed jobs and locales as frequently as Mexican field hands."

The couple had moved several times in just a few years when Fred took a job at NASA -- another one he couldn't discuss -- and, after being in Houston just a week, they bumped into Pynchon after a concert. "Phyl, Fred, what are you guys doing here?" she remembers Pynchon calling to them. The coincidence was the kind of thing that might happen in one of Pynchon's books -- but in Pynchon's world it would have been the result of a deep and complex conspiracy.

The reconnected friends spent a lot of time together. In her mini-memoir, titled "Tom and Us," Phyllis writes that Pynchon and Fred used to shoot toy rockets off the roof of their Houston house. She recalls that more than once she'd be talking to Pynchon on the phone, hand it over to Fred when she left for one of her graduate school classes -- and she'd return hours later to find Fred still sitting in their knotty-pine lined family room, still talking to Tom on the other end of line.

"Tom at the time was working on 'The Crying of Lot 49,' and when that book came out and I read about his heroine -- Oedipa Mass -- 'layering lasagna' at the beginning of Chapter One," Phyllis writes, "well, I can't prove it, but hey -- I'm sure that was our lasagna!"

When the Gebauers left Houston for Los Angeles Pynchon was right there with them -- literally. They drove their Volvo and Pynchon drove their Hillman convertible. While living in Southern California -- Pynchon is thought to have resided in Manhattan Beach, though Phyllis carefully avoided mentioning any specifics -- their friendship continued, and the Gebauers brought Pynchon a pig piñata, which they named Claude.

A previously unpublished photograph of Phyllis, Claude and Pynchon -- just his right arm,  extending from behind a door with his hand in a peace sign -- appears at the back of "Tom and Us," dated 1965.

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Claude was perhaps the inspiration for what is thought to be the most valuable inscription of Gebauer's collection, the sketch of a smiling pig saying "Love" in the 1973 novel "Gravity's Rainbow." That book was Pynchon's most controversial. In addition to winning the 1974 National Book Award, it was unanimously recommended by the judging committee to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize. However, the  recommendation was overturned by the advisory board, which found the book "unreadable," "turgid," "overwritten" and "obscene," and elected not to award any Pulitzer for fiction that year.

Although by this time they were again living in different parts of the country, Pynchon continued to send inscribed books to Fred and Phyllis Gebauer. His inscription in 2006's "Against the Day" was the first to Phyllis alone; Fred passed away in 1998.

Gebauer says Pynchon is not reclusive but simply very private. She channeled the author to describe his perspective: "Some people can pull this off, the balance between writing and going out to parties -- Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates. I get too easily distracted and I'm not good at schmoozing."

In 2010, Phyllis met up with Pynchon in New York, where he handed her a copy of his most recent novel, the SoCal spoof "Inherent Vice," over a seafood lunch in midtown Manhattan. Indeed, the writer is able to move around New York without being recognized.

"We toured this whole Barcelona exhibit," Gebauer said Wednesday. "Nobody in his building knows who he is. Nobody knows what he does."

In an era in which a Wikipedia scan identifies Pynchon's wife, a literary agent, and son by name, his privacy could be one avid Googler away.

She's discussed this precariousness with Pynchon. "In today's world" she said, "the privacy he gets is that people seldom read."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photos, from top: A first edition of Thomas Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49" inscribed by the author to Fred and Phyllis Gebauer, on display at UCLA; Pynchon's inscription in "Gravity's Rainbow" to the Gebauers, with pig cartoon; Phyllis Gebauer, with Claude the pig piñata and Pynchon waving a peace sign from behind the door, in Southern California in 1965. Credits: Carolyn Kellogg / Los Angeles Times; UCLA Extension

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