Lydia Davis on Thomas Pynchon

A rather appealing specimen of early Pynchon is the last story in his collection Slow Learner. The story, “The Secret Integration”—first published in the Saturday Evening Post more than forty years ago (three years after V. appeared)—involves a gang of young practical jokers and a rich childhood setting of an old town with a new development, a sprawling estate with a derelict mansion, and a downtown, complete with seedy hotel. In one deftly described scene, the boys coast on their bikes down a long hill in the early evening toward the hotel, “leaving behind two pages of arithmetic homework and a chapter of science” and, on the TV, “a lousy movie, some romantic comedy.” Because all the televisions in town receive only one channel, the boys, as they fly by, are able to follow the movie’s progress from house to house, through doors and windows “still open for the dark’s first coolness.”

In his introduction to Slow Learner, Pynchon, who somewhat preempts our reactions to the story, remarks that he likes it more than he dislikes it. In fact it is so likable that one envies the boys their comfortable society and the fields, streams, and town of their games. Their collaboration and apportioning of assignments is charming (to develop an arsenal for sabotaging the railroad; to enlist malcontent first-graders to destroy the boys’ latrine; to infiltrate PTA meetings); the elaborateness of their schemes, and the number that succeed, is impressive; and the animation of the central character, Grover the boy genius—with his enormous vocabulary, fund of information, and flights of hilarity—is particularly savory. The pranks the boys plan are potentially devastating to the community, yet, as Pynchon says in a lovely bit of writing, the boys would never actually take “any clear or irreversible step,” because “everybody on the school board, and the railroad, and the PTA and paper mill had to be somebody’s mother or father, whether really or as a member of a category; and there was a point at which the reflex to their covering warmth, protection, effectiveness against bad dreams, bruised heads and simple loneliness took over and made worthwhile anger with them impossible.”

There is a lyrical humanity in this story, an almost unapologetic gentleness, inviting and inclusive, that contrasts with the weightier, complex pessimism and bravura of Pynchon’s later works, in which perhaps it is more difficult for the characters to go home and be comforted at the end of the day.

From the Summer 2005 issue of Bookforum.

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