This Way to the Underworld, Y'all

Early today I had to pre-heat the oven for the frozen chicken nuggets that Daughter has favored for the past two months. Well, they aren’t as bad as the ones you can buy at the American Embassy (McDonald’s) and she’ll be on to something healthier, again, soon enough. While I was waiting for the oven to “ping” I picked up a copy of Thomas Pynchon’s V, for whatever reason, and re-read the first few pages.

I’ve been writing long-form texts for 20 years and I’ve developed a hawk-eye for typos/ errors (I can’t remember which famous author I caught using the “miniscule” variant of “minuscule” recently); there are very few books I’ve read that are error-free. On the first page of V, I stumbled over “bicep,” which is almost an accepted form in 2018 but back when Pynchon used it, it was wrong. A few pages on,  this sentence:

“He would pull out a handkerchief and not a heater or gat after all, blow his nose and laugh at whatever girl it happened to be sitting across the table.”

I’m always harping on the importance of close-reading and that’s pretty good evidence that I’m serious about the practise. The first American edition of V was famously full of typos/ errors that were largely corrected before the first British printing of the book, but I wonder if subsequent editions remove that infelicitous “it”? I did some Googling and ended up reading up on the virtual cottage industry that has grown around Pynchonian Errata… but then my oven pinged. It was ready for the nuggets.

I fetched the nugget-sack out of the freezer, snipped it open and scattered nuggets across the baking tray. Now, as I said, I’ve been heating sacks of these things for Daughter for a couple of months and they always come out of the bag like uniformly pudgy brown poker chips, very round, all the same size… following some reassuring industrial standard… but this morning, right after reading a bit of V, and reading about V, this is what I saw tumble on the baking sheet (in the spirit of full disclosure, this is actually how it looked after I baked it):


Obviously nothing more than a coincidence, but it’s a striking coincidence, because: of all the possible writers to unwittingly collaborate with in a cartoonish bit of Synchronicity… right? A similar coincidence involving John Updike or Alice Munro wouldn’t have been half as spooky. The only other writer I can think of, off the top of my head, with as much potential for Spooky Resonances (of a non-Eddie Poe nature) would be Don DeLillo.

DeLillo and Pynchon are very often lumped very closely together,  although, as stylists, they are now, more than ever, nothing alike. Not that Pynchon-the-younger is identical to contemporary Pynchon. If you care to conceptualize, with me, for a moment, The Novel as  living space, I’d say that young Pynchon, as a writer,  was a Hoarder while mature DeLillo is more of a Decorator.

Young Pynchon’s rhetorical houses are stuffed with lingo, characters, factoids, lyrics, et al, in dense stacks and teetering heaps. Moving through the rooms can be tough going, but you’re guaranteed to happen into (or stub your toe, or whack your forehead on) rare curios and treasures. There’s a certain personality type that loves digging through such piles and, in Pynchon’s case, because so many of the piles feature science, the men who enjoy digging around in these piles tend to be highly intelligent wannabe scientists or engineers, the types likely to build 800-pound analog computers, out of scrap-wood and hairpins, in their basements. Where is the Host as you try to make it through the hyper-dense clutter of his narrative castle called V? You’ll never find Him, among the piles, when hiding in his fort is his forte.

Old DeLillo, the Decorator, on the other hand, builds his texts in breezy, light-glutted Frank Lloyd Wrightish dream-homes, furnishing them with quirky aplomb and being good enough to lead you through the rooms on a narrative tour that breezes right along, suavely and with clarity and at an unhurried pace, utilizing, among other tricks, a kind of anti-grammatical syntax that is as easy to read as a Cubist nude is to look at (ie Very). Each room a set-piece; some set-pieces a little darker than others; the odors and color-combinations stimulating against the jazzy talk of our genial Host. Chaos does not reign.

This is most true of DeLillo’s post-White Noise,  pre-9/11 work (aka his Golden Age). 1976’s Ratner’s Star finds a young DeLillo writing things much closer to being stolen from a Pynchon novel (Pynchon was an obvious and admitted inspiration, for DD, throughout the 1970s)… it reads like the work of a young Hoarder. Dense with characters and puckish arcana,  it’s  rather math-y, science-y,  featuring character names like “Billy Twilig”,  every bit as goofy a name as “Bucky Wunderlick” (DeLillo/ Great Jones Street) or “Oedipa Maas” (Pynchon/ The Crying of Lot 49) or “Candida Donadio” (Pynchon’s then-agent’s actual name, R.I.P.). Ratner’s Star was probably young DeLillo’s most successful pastiche of Grand Young Pynchonia.

In quite a few ways I’d say that DeLillo is the improvement on Pynchon, at the risk of enraging literate… though not nearly literate as they think, I think... wannabe scientists and engineers everywhere. Sometimes, an acolyte comes along who is so capable of acute imitation that he or she can see, as a byproduct, where real improvement is needed in the original and how it can be done. To quote Wiki, “DeLillo has also acknowledged some of the weaknesses of his 1970s works, reflecting in 2007: “I knew I wasn’t doing utterly serious work, let me put it that way.” Which is another way of saying that Pynchon wasn’t. It’s too obvious he was having fun.

Pynchon was 26 when V was published and about 37 for Gravity’s Rainbow (vs David Foster Wallace’s being 34 for the publication for Infinite Jest). When DeLillo got really serious, and published the first of his Golden Spate of Masterpieces (Libra), he was 52. The difference being that Pynchon is best known for the book he saw published when he was 37, Gravity’s Rainbow (having taken years to write it), while DeLillo is best known for Underworld, a book that came out when he was 60 or 61. Therein lies the rub. Beware 20-something novelists bearing gifts.

Pynchonians would probably like to think of the West’s Literary 20th Century as bookended by Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow, but the second bookend more properly begins with the letter U.

The following is a passage from V, and if your reading is wide enough, it will remind you of something:

Mrs. Buffo, poised on her rampart like the trumpeter of Cracow, took the full impact of the onslaught, toppling over backwards into an ice-tub as the first wave came hurtling over the bar. Ploy, hands outstretched, was propelled over the top. He  caught on to one of the tap handles and simultaneously his shipmates let go; his momentum carried him and the handle in a downward arc: beer began to gush from the foam rubber breast in a white cascade, washing over Ploy, Mrs. Buffo and two dozen sailors who had come around behind the bar in a flanking action and who were now battering one another into insensibility. The group who had carried Ploy over spread out and tried to corner more beer taps. Ploy’s leading petty officer was on hands and knees holding Ploy’s feet, ready to pull them out from under him and take his striker’s place when Ploy had had enough. The Impulsive detachment in their charge had formed a flying wedge. In their wake and through the breach clambered at least sixty more slavering bluejackets, kicking, clawing, sidearming, bellowing uproariously; some swinging beer bottles to clear a path.

Profane sat at the end of the bar, watching hand-tooled sea boots, bellbottoms, Levi’s with rolled-up cuffs; every now and again a drooling face at the end of a fallen body; broken beer bottles, tiny sawdust storms.

Compare to…


Not to say Pynchon was influenced by Underground Comics (which didn’t get going, as we know them, until a few years after V came out), but a similar aesthetic (the Hoarder’s horror vacui / the saturated pothead’s love for slapstick) is evident. This brings us back to Pynchon being  26 at the time V was published. And, speaking of cartoons: how many words with the letter “v” in them did Pynchon shoehorn into V, do you suppose…?

(There is an answer to that question, in fact: c. 7,000. As compared to c. 6,000 words, featuring the letter “v”, in Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, a book slightly shorter than V. Not particularly indicative, then…)

Pynchon-targeting encomia usually invoke the breadth of the man’s apparently-encyclopedic knowledge… a circus-freak-trick drained of magic in the post-Google world. Only Philistines read Novels for their factual content, anyway. Whether TRP spent all his time in libraries or absorbed half his internalized database while working for Boeing or at sea, the “astonishingly wide-breadth of knowledge on display” (to quote fellow Mayflowerette George Plimpton) was nothing more than the XL, ruby-encrusted brassiere on a dancing girl’s body. No one who’s been around the block brags about the size of a dancing girl’s bra . Or, to flip genders (this is the era of #MenAreTrash, after all): re: the size of the mountebank’s codpiece:  Is it stuffed?

Here’s a passage from Mature Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge (published in 2013, when Pynchon was 76):

From Nutley there’s a New Jersey Transit bus to the Port of Authority by way of Newark. They grab a couple minutes of sleep. Maxine has one of those transit dreams. Women in shawls, a sinister light. Everybody speaking Spanish. A somehow desperate flight by antiquated bus through jungles to escape a threat, a volcano possibly. At the same time, this is also a tour bus full of Upper West Side Anglos, and the tour director is Windust, lecturing in that wise-ass radio voice, something about the nature of volcanoes. The volcano behind them, which hasn’t gone away, grows more ominous.

Maxine wakes up out of this someplace on the Lincoln Tunnel approach. In the terminal, March suggests, “Let’s go out the other way, avoid Disney Hell and go find some breakfast.”

They find a Latino breakfast joint on Ninth and dig in.

“Something on your mind, Maxine.”

“Been meaning to ask you this for a while, what was going on in Guatemala back in 1982?”

“Same as Nicaragua, El Salvador, Ronald Reagan and his people, Schachtmanite goons like Elliott Abrams, turning Central America into a slaughterhouse all to play out their little anti-Communist fantasies. Guatemala by then had fallen under the control of a mass murderer and particular buddy of Reagan named Ríos Montt, who as usual wiped off his bloody hands on the baby Jesus like so many of these charmers do. Government death squads funded by the U.S., army sweeps through the western highlands, officially targeting the EGP or Guerrilla Army of the Poor but in practice exterminating any native populations they came across. There was at least one death camp, on the Pacific coast, where the emphasis may’ve been political, but up in the hills it was on-site genocide, not even mass burial, just bodies left for the jungle to take care of, which certainly must have saved the government a lot on cleanup costs.”

Maxine is somehow not as hungry as she thought. “And any Americans who were there . . .”

“Either humanitarian kids, naïve and borderline idiotic, or ‘advisers’ sharing their extensive expertise at butchering nonwhites. Though by then, most of that was being outsourced to U.S. client states with the necessary technical chops. Why do you ask?”

“Just wondering.”

“Yeah. When you’re ready, tell me. I’m really Dr. Ruth Westheimer, nothing shocks me.”

Or, from later in the book: Protag Maxine Tarnow, an ex certified fraud examiner, has been sent, mysteriously, a VHS tape. The tape (about which she is initially apprehensive: “Maxine knows she’s been putting off watching it, with the same superstitious aversion as her parents had to telegrams back in the day.”) opens with footage of a drive up the Long Island Expressway, then:

The shot enters a dirt road lined with shacks and trailers, and approaches what at first seems like a roadhouse because every window is pouring light, people are wandering around in and out of the place, sounds of jollification and a music track including Motor City psychobilly Elvis Hitler, at the moment singing the Green Acres theme to the tune of “Purple Haze” and providing Maxine an unmeasured moment of nostalgia so unlikely that she begins to feel targeted personally.

The camera moves up the front steps and into the house, shouldering aside partygoers, through a couple of rooms littered with beer and vodka bottles, glassine envelopes, unmatched shoes, pizza boxes and fried chicken containers, on through the kitchen to a door and down into the basement, to a particular concept of the suburban rec room . . .

Mattresses on the floor, a king-size fake angora bedspread in a shade of purple peculiar to VHS tape, mirrors everyplace, in a far corner a foul dribbling refrigerator that also buzzes loudly, in a stammering rhythm, as if providing a play-by-play on the hijinks in progress.

A young man, medium-long haircut, naked except for a dirt-glazed ball cap, an erection pointed at the camera. A woman’s voice from outside camera range, “Tell them your name, baby.”

“Bruno,” almost defensive.

An ingenue in cowgirl boots and an evil grin, tattoo of a scorpion just above her ass, some time since her last shampoo, television screenlight reflecting off of a pale and zaftig body, introduces herself as Shae. “And this here is Westchester Willy, say hi to the VCR, Willy.”

Nodding hello at the edge of the frame is a middle-aged, out-of-shape party who from mug shots faxed up to her from John Street Maxine recognizes as Vip Epperdew. Fast zoom in on Vip’s face, with a look of undisguisable yearning, which he quickly tries to reset to standard party mode.

Gusts of laughter from topside. Bruno’s hand comes into the shot with a butane lighter and a crack pipe, and the threesome now become affectionate.

Jules and Jim (1962) it isn’t. Talk about double-entry bookkeeping! As erotic material, there are shortcomings, to be sure. Boy and girl quality could do with an upgrade, Shae is a jolly enough girl, maybe a little vacant around the eyes, Vip is years overdue for some gym time, and Bruno comes across as a horny little runt with a tendency to shriek and a dick, frankly, not big enough for the scenario, provoking expressions of annoyance from Shae and Vip whenever it approaches them for any purpose. Maxine is surprised to feel an unprofessional pulse of distaste for Vip, this needy, somehow groveling yup. If the other two are supposed to be worth the long schlep from Westchester, hours on the LIE, an addiction supposedly less negotiable than crack, not to their youth but to the single obvious thing their youth is good for, then why not kids who can pretend at least that they know what they’re doing?

Mature Pynchon is not quite the horror-vacui-plagued Hoarder he was while writing V, or Gravity’s Rainbow, or The Crying of Lot 49. The cartoonishness is still there, the information is clarified… but the magic is somehow gone, no? What one had hoped that maturity would bring to Pynchon was not sobriety, nor neatness, nor a gearing-down of the savant-maniacal, nor… banality. As ever: one is clearer about what one doesn’t want than what one does…

To be cruel: here’s an extended passage (below), a great set-piece from DeLillo’s Underworld, showing that DeLillo learned to turn down the cartoonishness he picked up from Pynchon while remaining terribly funny, if not becoming funnier, in the process. DeLillo tweaked the Cartoon Filters until the result became Life. Everything DeLillo “lost” with age he has redeemed with greater attributes, chief among them being verisimilitude and music.

Setting: the evening of the day of the (epochal, apparently) 1957 World Series, Manx Martin, an unemployed/ disgraced father in Harlem, has what he hopes is treasure in his pocket: the winning home-run ball from the game, caught by his son (and lifted from the son by Manx). Manx slips into a bar to do some thinking. The passage is keyed to the ironic mantra “you gotta raise your sights” and the punchline packs a wallop that is hilarious, sad and true, and you can marvel at it after you’re done marveling at DeLillo’s brilliantly imaginative modulation of his writerly empathy, his pacing, the hard lines and the blurs and white spaces of the watercolor:

Manx needs a drink. He hurries up Amsterdam past a TV-radio store where a TV is flickering and half a dozen people are watching in the cold. About a block away he see some guys running toward him, grown men, you know, pounding over the sidewalk, over the iron hatchways that lead to storage cellars, rattling the metal as they come, and he sees they’re sort of half laughing, they’re embarrassed, must be a crap game down an alley that the police broke up, and they go past him rattling the hatchways and looking back, running and half laughing and looking back.

He almost wants to turn around and run with them. He sees the humor of it. They’ll meet in some doorway three blocks away laughing and panting and catching their breath, feeling grown-up stupid, and they’ll find a place to do their gambling, the back room of a barbershop or someone’s living room if the wife’s not there.

But the wife is there.

Because I got a wife can’t stand the sight of me even if I’m ten miles away, and will not let me breathe without a comment, and makes more comments in her head, and she is definitely there.

A dog looks out a first-floor window.

Yeah, black men running in the streets. Manx found himself running in the ’43 riot and he probably had that same look on his face, conscious of being caught up in something he shouldn’t be doing but doing it anyway, running past Orkin’s where Ivie bought a sample coat, a coat a dummy used to wear, on sale cheap, and it rankled his mind all right, and all the Orkin’s dummies were on the sidewalk now, torsos tumbled in the gutter, and heads without bodies, and slim necks and pale hair, and dummies armless like famous statues. He recalls this now, the big windows busted and dummies in garters, dummy legs in stockings and garters and kids in tuxedos, men running in the streets and a kid maybe twelve years old in a top hat and looted tux and a cop was leading him to a prowl car, funniest damn thing, top hat and tails and dragging pants–even the cop had a sweetheart smile.

He goes the last four blocks with his head turned away from the wind and the wind is whipping off the Hudson and Manx is walking like a horse with a spooked head.

But how different once you step inside the bar. The warm buzz, the easy breathing, the rumps happy on their stools. The buzz in Tally’s is special tonight, more bodies than the usual midweek slump and more static in the air–and then he remembers. There’s a tone, a telling rustle in the room and he pats the side of his jacket and feels the baseball and understands that they’re talking about the game.

He waves to Phil, who’s behind the bar, Tally’s brother, in his plain shirt and fancy suspenders, and he gestures a question where–and Phil nods toward the far corner and there is Antoine Cooper sitting with a drink in front of him and two tall shovels leaned on the wall behind.

Manx sits across from Antoine, sits sideways in his chair so he doesn’t have to look at the shovels.

“I seen Franzo standing in the dark.”

“I know it. He wants my car. But he can’t have it.”

“What’s that you’re drinking?”

“He’s looking to make some chick he’s better off avoiding. Trust me. I already done her.”

Manx looks around the room, takes in the buzz, hears half a sentence fly up out of shared laughter and he decides not to mention the shovels. He is aghast at the shovels. The shovels should not be here in any manner, way, shape or form. But he decides for now he won’t say a word. “What was that riot in forty-three? I’m trying to recall how it started. They filled so many holding cells in so many station houses they had to open an armory.”

“Forty-three. I’m in the army, man.”

“They had bleeding men carrying their loot under armed guard. Put them in an armory on Park Avenue.”

“We had our own riot,” Antoine says.

Manx goes to the bar and gets a Seagram’s from Phil–he likes his rye in a short glass with a single ice cube.

Phil says, “What’s happening?”

“I hear they played a ball game today.”

“Goddamn it was something.”

Manx carries the drink back to the table with one hand clutching the glass in the usual manner and the palm of the other hand under the glass, supporting it like some polished object in a church.

The ice cube is mainly scenery.

Antoine says, “How the boys doing?”

“The boys. The boys spread far and wide,” Manx says. “Randall’s in the South somewhere, bivouacking, you know, training in the field. And Vernon.”

“I know where Vernon’s at.”

“Vernon’s on the front line is where he’s at. They got a quarter million troops they’re looking at across the line. Them Chinese.”

“What division he’s with?”

“What division.”

“Second Infantry’s in Korea,” Antoine says.

“I don’t know what division.”

“You don’t follow the war?”

“What’s that you’re drinking?”

“I like to follow the war. They plot their strategies.”

“They blow horns and whistles, that’s their strategy, them Chinese. They come charging down in swoops.”

“This here’s brandy, my man. Drinking imported tonight.”

“It’s sitting there a little potent,” Manx says.

“Only in the glass. Goes down the hatch real smooth.”

“They come in swoops. That’s their strategy.”

“You say a prayer now and then. That’s what you do.”

“Sure, Antoine. I kneel by the bedside.”

“You done okay with your kids.”

“Sure, Antoine. They take care of me in my old age.”

“You got some work?”

“They come visit me in the old folks. Slip me a bottle through the gate.”

“You done okay, considering.”

“Rosie’s the one. That’s a great girl. That’s the only one that shows respect.”

“You need some work. Change your temperament around. You’re walking on eggs lately.”

“They’re laying off. They’re not hiring. They’re laying off.”

“You need to get into long-distance moving.”

“They bring me a cake on my birthday,” Manx says.

“Long-distance, that’s the ticket. I got a cousin in Alabama, which he’s based in Birmingham, gets plenty of work long-hauling furniture and whatnot.”

“I keep that in mind.”

“Yellow yams from Birmingham.”

“I place that on my list of things I need to think about.”

“Greenest greens you ever seen,” Antoine says a little croony.

Manx decides he can’t contain it any longer. But he doesn’t look at Antoine. He looks across the room at one of those wall lamps, the old-fashioned-type lamp bracketed to the wall where the sleeves that hold the bulbs have fake candle wax running down the sides.

And he says, “Shit man you got those shovels in plain sight.”

Antoine has a long slick head and narrow neck, a man of schemes and contrivances, called Snake when he was younger, and he determines it is necessary to turn his upper body to the wall behind him so he can identify the objects in question. Oh yeah, these things, for shoveling off the patio after a white Christmas.

And he turns back to Manx real low in his chair so he’s peering out confidentially over his drink.

“I don’t think there’s an FBI bulletin circulating tristate. What do you think?”

“I think they belong in your car, like we stated.”

“The point is you got to raise your sights. Because these things don’t bring no return.”

“We stated beforehand, Antoine.”

“Not worth arguing. You’re right, I’m wrong. But you got to raise your sights.”

They sit drinking a while and Manx thinks about leaving but he doesn’t move off the chair. He thinks about taking his shovels and leaving but he sits there because once he gets up and takes the shovels off the wall he is committed to walking the full length of the barroom with two large snow shovels in early October, and no place sensible to take them, and the thought of it, and the sight of it, keeps his ass in the chair.

Instead he takes out the baseball and sets it on the table. Then he waits for Antoine to take some time out of his busy day so he can notice.

“My kid brought it home from the game, my youngest, says it’s the home run that won the game.”

“That game they played today?”

“That’s right,” Manx says.

“I seen people on Seventh Avenue hollering up and down. Hands pressed on their horns, hollering out the windows. I said to Willie Mabrey. You know Willie? I said, They must be opening the vaults. The banks opening up their vaults. First come first serve. I said, Let’s go get ours.”

“My youngest. He come home with the ball. This is the ball what’s-his-name hit in the stands. The game winner. Win the pennant.”

Manx feels uneasy, he feels separated from what he’s saying–it comes out of his mouth like a lie, the way a lie hangs in the air independent of right and wrong, making you feel you’re not responsible.

He feels an urge to take the ball off the table and put it back in his pocket.

“This is the ball what’s-his-name? What you saying exactly?”

“I’m saying it could be worth something.”

“And I’m saying raise your sights. Because the circumstantial fact, you can’t prove nothing. And who do you sell it to anyway?”

“I sell it to the ball club. They want it for a trophy. They make a display.”

“Let me look at this thing. This thing’s all smudged up.”

Manx realizes he doesn’t want Antoine to touch the ball. Antoine will look at the ball and say something that’s a bringdown, something that gets Manx riley and griped, and he is already feeling tense enough, with his stomach acting up.

He takes the ball and puts it in his pocket.

Antoine leans back, hands up and palms facing out, showing his old snakehead smile, cool and mean.

“Tell you something. Maybe you sell the thing somewhere. But I don’t think you be buying a sofa from Ludwig Bauman’s,” he says. “Or a pretty di-nette.”

Manx goes to the bar to drink in peace. After a while Phil comes over and they talk a while. The place is quieter now, down to serious drinkers, they talk about the game. Phil is a straight-up guy, barn-sized, looks you in the eye. He talks about the game and Manx listens carefully, hoping for an angle, something to go on.

The Dodgers are finished for the year. Dead and buried. The Giants play in the World Series starting tomorrow–starting today, Phil says, checking his watch, because it’s past midnight now.

“Who they playing in the Series?”

“Yankees, who else?”

“All New York in other words.”

“All New York series. And people already lining up for tickets. Heard it on the radio. All night they’ll be lining up. Sleeping bags, you know. Hove to go myself.”

“All night?” Manx says.

“People do anything to see this series, the way the Giants got in.”

Manx likes the sound of that. People do anything. He tells Phil to pour one for himself, knowing the man will decline, he always declines, and Manx feels a little snakelike, caught it from Antoine.

He goes back to the table with a little shuffle in his step.

“You leave your brother standing in the cold.”

“I know it,” Antoine says.

“He wants the car one night is all.”

“I’m doing him a favor. Because that lady he’s looking to make is all kinds of two-faced.”

“Let him find out for himself. He’s a young guy looking for some action.”

“See, you’re not a jealous man. Let me explain something. I’m a jealous man. When I say jealous I mean the full meaning of the word. Everybody jealous,” Antoine says. “The word don’t mean shit unless you give it the full meaning. It needs a adjective. Like crazy jealous or can’t-think-straight jealous. So if I say I’m jealous, you have to picture eyeballs filled with blood.”

“You already done with her. What do you care? He’s a good boy, Franzo. Let him learn.”

“Let him find out, you mean. Because he won’t learn nothing.”

But Antoine seems to soften. He eases toward the tabletop, elbows spread, his chin nearly touching the brandy glass.

“Yeah I like that boy a lot. He’s a good boy, Franzo. But I got my car in an awkward position.”

“You wrap it around a pole?”

“You know Willie Mabrey?”

“Don’t think so,” Manx says.

“Willie and I been talking about my car. A way to make some fast cash. I ain’t broke per se. But I can use some hurry in my income.” Sipping his brandy. “And this here’s my first payment in advance. Go down smooth. The cream de la cream.”

“Payment for what?”

“Willie opened a restaurant about six weeks ago. Doing okay. But he’s got a problem with his garbage. The city’s talking about private companies coming in to pick up this trash. But right now the city does it and there’s an ordinance about what time of day or night a restaurant can leave garbage on the street. You can’t leave it there all night.”

“Smells bad.”

“Smells bad, attracts vermin. And if you keep it on the premises, you have a situation where the rats talking to the customers.”

“So you made an arrangement with the man.”

“Me and my car both.”

“Which this reminds me,” Manx says. “You mind give me a lift?”

“Take you anywhere,” Antoine says.

They drain their glasses and get up and sort of shake themselves out, shake off the complacent airs and humors of the tavern and rearouse themselves for whatever’s out there, the edgy wind-spooked street.

Antoine gets into his jacket and rolls his shoulders and zips the jacket to the throat. He cuffs his nuts for good measure, aligning for comfort and symmetry, placing them squarely at the center of the world. Manx is already wearing his jacket, he never took his jacket off, he’s been wearing his jacket since he left the house in the morning, drinking in it, eating dinner in it, washing the dinner dish, and he zips it to the throat and sinks into the hull, the shell, already a little lightweight for the season.

They wave to Phil on the way out. They walk down to the end of the block, where the car is parked. Manx goes around to the passenger side and puts his hand on the door handle and then he stops and looks.

Antoine says, “Get in, man. Faster you get in, faster we move. Where you want to go?”

Manx is looking. He looks in the window at the rear seat and it is filled with garbage. He’d smelled it when he walked down the street but this is not an unoccurring smell and he took it for the general thing it was, garbage in an alleyway or empty lot. Now he sees it is Antoine’s car that smells, it is Antoine’s car packed with mounds of ripe trash.

This is Art to a high standard; this is also the best movie you’ve seen today. This is the kind of thing that the nevertheless-great Pynchon is largely incapable of, though his fans surely don’t care. Young Pynchon and Mature Pynchon are limited in similar ways. Mature DeLillo left Young DeLillo in the dust.

Just as sci-fi buffs who get off on far-out concepts don’t notice or care about Phillip K. Dick’s weaknesses as (exposition-heavy) literary stylist, and aficionados of gritty K-Mart regionalism don’t notice or care about Ray Carver’s, or Denis Johnson’s, rushed and sloppy (and negative-capability-deficient) prose… so, too, will the science-y wannabes who love sifting through  megatons of  lead-based minutiae, in the mad search for the occasional brilliant uranium atom, fail to notice, or perhaps just not care, that Pynchon’s fattest masterpieces, V and Gravity’s Rainbow and, say, Mason Dixon, are closer to being Fascinating Rhetorical Super-Structures than Great Novels. It’s more than okay to love a text for extra-Literary reasons (nb: whereas to love a text, primarily, for its plot is to love it for semi-Literary reasons); what is important is calling things what they are.

I hold the great New Wave director, Jean-Luc Godard, in high regard… but more for his ideas than his films. Only one of JLG’s films do I consider nearly-perfect (Masculin/ Féminin). There is something of that in my Love for TRP’s work; it’s a minor-key Love under the influence of a heavy qualifier.

This doesn’t make Pynchon’s big books less wonderful than Don DeLillo’s Libra, or Mao II, or Underworld… just very different. Literary Aesthetes like me will tend toward the DeLillo material, I think, while getting a definite kick (and inspiration) out of the very notion of Thomas Ruggles Pynchon the character.

May the Blessings of The Word be upon you and may your chicken nuggets remain round…



*I haven’t agreed wholeheartedly with anything Martin Amis has written or said in 25 years, but he’s really good about Joyce, here (at the 6:30 mark) and it applies quite well to the writer of V, Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon and Against the Day.


  1. I keep coming back for your DeLillo takes and I’m never disappointed, whether I agree or not. In this case I wholeheartedly agree, up to and including the Amis footnote.

    As a fan of Amis’ work most of the way through the 90’s (short stories and lit crit primarily) I found his NYT review ( ) of “Underworld” to be an admission that DeLillo accomplished what Amis himself set out to do in “Einstein’s Monsters”, in an even broader fin de siecle register.

    Chicken tenders > chicken nuggets.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dillwax!

      Ooops, I assumed you were another Food/Travel blogger hoping to exchange futile “likes”! Laugh. Too bad that link you drop is behind a pay-wall I can’t be bothered to breach… is it an essay from one of the collections?

      Re: chicken anything: Our Offsprung (teen) is going through a cooking-for-herself phase and one (and nearly the only) thing she can cook, she cooks really well: Chicken Schnitzel! A dish from Vienna (eerily, her mother and I walked Vienna’s little alleys before she was conceived, but something seems to have entered her DNA from the several schnitzel we consumed while there; I wrote about that trip in a story called “Sarah is Five-Ish”). And Offsprung’s schnitzels are much better than either “tenders” or “nuggets”… those deep-fried, geometrical pseudo-food medallions of the modern! I will probably never get over (speaking of Futurist cuisine) Tater Tots, though.

      Thanks for your pleasant thoughts,



      1. I defaulted to Futurist cuisine for much of my childhood. For a period, all I would eat was chicken nuggets and baby carrots. My favourites were the nuggets shaped like dinosaurs, served at a Canadian chain of restaurants named for a major American city. My passion for battered chicken has yet to wane. Last night I watched football and put back IPAs with a basket of pickle-brined Nashville-style chicken tenders in front of me. I love the idea of chicken schnitzel. I’ll endeavor to make some before the end of the year.

        My food blogging days are behind me. I’m on the other side of that equation: I cook professionally.

        The article behind the link I dropped behind the paywall is in fact collected in “The War Against Cliché”, just after Amis’ bewilderingly good review of “Mao II” (pg. 316 in my Vintage Canada paperback).

        Thank you for keeping this blog–it’s one of my favourites,


        Liked by 1 person

        1. Dylan!

          Re: the Futurist cuisine of childhood: Pop Tarts and Tang! But those overlap with the Now. Here’s one for the Crap Food Paleontologists: Space Food Sticks. I can still quite vividly remember the muted (high ratio of texture-to-flavor) taste. Would I feed those to my Daughter? Nope. Ditto the Velveeta that was one of the cornerstone elements (right beside Jello on the chart) of my mother’s R&D in the ’60s kitchen.

          Here’s the food for which my passion has yet to wane: Berlin kebabs! I’ve been here since 1990 (minus a brief absence) and this regional staple has evolved in the competition between hundreds of the little shops (such a shop is called an “Imbiss”) selling them. Two weeks ago I had a kebab for dinner every night for a week. My trick is that I get my Wife to go in and order them for me: that way they’re invariably about 30% larger/better than when I order them for myself… make of that what you will.

          Re: the War Against Cliché: I have that one and will page to the essay you linked. As Martin’s talent ages, I find I prefer the essays. The fiction has been withering since the high point of The Information, in my opinion. He seems to have lost touch with something; maybe his ability to modulate registers is gone (adjectives/adverbs always dialed to TEN) or maybe his Nabokov fetish has ruined his pacing (the sentences just plod, for me, now) or maybe he’s just solipsistically tone-deaf and never bothers to ask himself how/why anyone would enjoy what he’s writing. I bought his latest a few months ago and I still haven’t finished it, but I go back to it every week and try to hack my way through another chapter, breaking more stacks of machetes.

          Re: this blog: I’m working on another post that will be done by Sunday, probably. So many Real World variables impinge on the writing these days! The current state of the World doesn’t even provide much material because it’s monotonous.

          PS Re: Mao ll: do you dislike it or is it that Martin dialed his review to TEN?


  2. If only Marty took daddy’s advice with the -ly adverbs and the like. He’s abusing them in an effusively incorrigible way, salubriously pattering at the MacBook Pro like a sartorially-appropriate low-register vampire painstakingly set to pledge fealty to his dearly departed co-clients of Andrew Wylie every couple of years. He’s been on the same drum with Nabokov and Bellow for the last twenty years with nothing new to say. I don’t hate the things he says I just hate how he’s had to repay his six-figure mandible surgery in the early nineties with paeans to Bellow and Nabokov for the sake of their estates, held in the trust of the Wylie Agency. The novelist inside him died after “the Information”. From then on he was in the business of literary (and sub-literary) reputation. How else can you explain him sucking the toes of Steven Pinker in his most recent puke and on the stages of grantland literary fests the world over for the last TEN years?

    Space food sticks? That reeks of the lunar optimism of the 60’s. I was born in 1991 and know only of stuff similar to these supermarket MK Ultra supplements through my uncles’ regaling. The millennial analogue to that would probably be the Zoo Sticks (deep fried zucchini sometimes shaped like display case wildlife). I haven’t been to Berlin but I can attest to a similar portion disparity when my Persian girlfriend grabs dinner and when I grab dinner at our nearby donair spot in Vancouver, BC. She gets more from the fellas than I do and this I understand.

    I’m lukewarm to Mao II as a novel but hot on the ideas packed inside. it’s an incomplete novel. It seems like it could’ve been expanded on, especially the finer details of Bill Gray’s life. DeLillo could’ve blown his Bronx load of biographic detail here but he saved it for Underworld. MarTEN Amis is kind to Mao II and lets all the best bits breathe in his review (he’s not jealous of it in the way he’s jealous of Underworld, or say, Infinite Jest).

    “When main characters say things ‘quietly’, you know it’s meant to be good stuff.”

    The novelist/terrorist bit is aggrandized by the Rushdie Affair being just behind its publishing date. I’m surprised MarTEN doesn’t tap into this in the review (is it a coincidence that this is pre-Wylie Amis?) but I’m not disappointed. It’s the kind of review that makes you read the book in question. He’s sympathetic to DeLillo’s assessment of the late 20th century and shakes out his few misgivings in the final paragraphs.



    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a well-sculpted comment! I love comments that could function as posts: you get a tiny framed Golden (Chicken) Nugget for this one. “MarTEN” is something I kick myself for missing! Laugh

      Re: Mao ll: it’s a little spacious, yes, but the ratio of lit-to-air-pocket doesn’t fall under a crucial level like the last three or four of DD’s novels did (for me).

      Oh and re: Persian GFs: ah! I can contribute to any conversation on that theme (more on that later)


  3. Your posts are full-on and I pay respect by putting diligence into my comments, simple as!

    I’m only a few pages into the new DD and my favourite part thus far is that he has the Seahawks playing the next Superbowl. I’m not expecting much, but good on the guy for still pecking away.

    Until next time!


    Liked by 1 person

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