The mere release of Thomas Pynchon’s Vine/and on December 20, 1989, qualified it for serious consideration as the most eagerly awaited novel of the 1980’s. For more than ten years the author’s devotees had wondered just how he would build upon the three works of fiction—V (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)—that had established him as one of the great prose artists of the post-World War II era. Speculation intensified after a 1989 Little, Brown announcement heralded the arrival of the new novel, reaching a still higher pitch with the publisher’s decision to forego a traditional advance galley release in favor of simultaneous distribution to critics and bookstores alike.
Both previews and reviews of the book found many journalists echoing a familiar litany of biographical details and rumors that reinforced a popular image of Pynchon as uncompromisingly private. Yet, although the exact whereabouts of the Long Island native remained shrouded in mystery, his identity became somewhat better known in the 1980’s, when his nonfiction voice (apparently silent since the June 12, 1966, publication of “A Journey Into the Mind of Watts” in The New York Times Magazine) was finally heard again. In addition to writing occasional endorsement blurbs and offering words of support to persecuted writers Salman Rushdie and Marianne Wiggins in The New York Times Book Review feature “Words for Salman Rushdie” (March 12, 1989), Pynchon offered readers glimpses into his tastes, opinions, and experiences in four essays: the introduction to the 1983 Penguin reissue of Richard Farina’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me (1966); the introduction to his own short story collection S/ow Learner (1984); and, also for The New York Times Book Review, the 1984 essay “Is It O.K. To Be a Luddite?” and the 1988 review of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love In the Time of Cholera.
Relaxed and conversational in tone, the essays suggest that, during his long silence, Pynchon had developed an interest in departing from the daunting complexities of his earlier novels. Certainly Vineland, though dense with intricate wordplay and architecturally reminiscent of those works, is his lightest and least intimidating novel to date. Little, Brown’s initial run of 120,000 volumes bespoke confidence that the book would interest a sizable audience; a prompt rise to the top of The New York Times’ best-seller list and additional printings in 1990 indicated the validity of such an assessment.
The story opens one summer morning in 1984 in the fictional Northern California county of Vineland, where a forlorn, pot- smoking Zoyd Wheeler lives with his teenage daughter, Prairie, and their dog, Desmond. For different reasons, father and daughter both long for a reunion with Prairie’s mother, Frenesi Margaret Gates, who left them soon after her daughter was born. Zoyd has chosen this particular day to engage in his annual ritual of crashing through a window to qualify for Mental Disability payments. As in summers past, he succeeds in executing his stunt, but ominous occurrences attendant on the occasion, including the return of Hector Zuniga, a congenial but calculating Drug Enforcement Agent, portend serious trouble ahead. Soon Zoyd learns that his home has been commandeered by forces led by Brock Vond, the malevolent federal prosecutor responsible for Frenesi ’5 long estrangement from her family. Alarmed, Zoyd persuades Prairie to flee south but remains, disguised, in Vineland, hoping to find a way to reclaim his home.
A chance encounter at a wedding hosted by mob boss Ralph Wayvone soon brings Prairie under the wing of Darryl Louise (DL) Chastain, a martial arts expert who knew Frenesi in the 1960’s, when both belonged to the guerrilla film outfit 24fps. DL takes Frenesi’s daughter to the Sisterhood of Kunoichi Attentives, a retreat run by female martial arts enthusiasts, where Prairie uses computerized records in the Ninjette Terminal Center to learn more of her mother’s past; however, the threatening approach of Huey Cobras prompts Prairie, DL, and Dls companion, Takeshi Fumimota, to vacate the premises. After racing to Takeshi’s Los Angeles office in a camouflaged TransAm, DL and Prairie visit the home of Ditzah Pisk Feldman, keeper of the 24fps archives. Watching the group’s documentary footage with DL and Ditzah, Prairie learns how Frenesi, hopelessly attracted to Brock, aided him in his plan to arrange the assassination of...
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