America’s Literary Wild Man

“A screaming comes across the sky.” That’s the simple, declarative first sentence of *Gravity’s Rainbow,* by Thomas Pynchon, who celebrates his 82 birthday today. It is also virtually the last simple or declarative thing in the novel, which won the 1973 National Book Award. Pynchon published eight novels over the half-century between *V.* (1963) and *Bleeding Edge* (2013). That’s not a prolific rate, but what he lacks in frequency he makes up for in length and density; several are thick enough that, in hardcover, they can thwart armor-piercing bullets. My own preference is for his short one, *The Crying of Lot 49* (1966), a love not always shared by my students, who showed an unfortunate fondness for mere realism. Pynchon is the patron saint of the deranged, the conspiratorial, the manic, and the doomed–my kind of guy.
I know a guy who knows a guy (making this a typical Pynchon story, since hardly anyone knows him directly) who was at Cornell with him in the 1950s. One night at 2:30 in the morning Pynchon burst into the guy’s room and asked, “Do you have a 1943 World Almanac?” I don’t know if it’s true, but everything about it sounds exactly like him.