Chasing Pynchon's Rainbows

Screw the owls. Boy wizard Harry Potter may have The Order of the Phoenix and the Dementors’ kiss, but Thomas Pynchon, who is man — all man — has Gravity’s Rainbow and the V-2 rocket. On this, the eve of the publication of Against the Day, we have gathered to count down to midnight at Skylight Books in Los Feliz to tip the best-seller scales in favor of Pynchon, grand master of the postmodern novel, and give challenge to Harry Potter’s cultural supremacy. And by “we” I mean a ragtag bunch of late-night browsers, the bookstore clerk girls, several local Skylight regulars, a handful of Pynchon fanboys, a homeless guy or two and a cat.

Charles Hauther, buyer for Skylight Books, came up with the idea. “I figured, if every year we have a midnight-release sale for the new Harry Potter novels, then why not for Pynchon, the greatest novelist of all time?”

He’s a bear of a guy, Hauther, possessing a stature worthy of Joyce or Melville. So far, he has the only reading copy of the new Pynchon tucked behind the counter. A guy idling by the register — in shorts, even though it’s night and cold; in a hat, even though it’s not sunny — who looks not unlike a grown-up Harry Potter, reaches over and absently flips the book open.

“Hey,” Hauther snaps. “Did you just read the last page?”

“Yes.”

“Unacceptable.”

A well-orchestrated event must have a plan. The Skylight plan is to move the snacks and the wine and the Perrier bottles, along with plastic cups, onto the table in the back, where someone, Hauther presumably, has already assembled a mini–Pynchon paperback buffet. The books, titles pulled from the store’s collection, are arrayed in neat stacks: V, Mason & Dixon, Slow Learner, Vineland, Gravity’s Rainbow. Hauther even special-ordered the illustrated Gravity’s Rainbow, the one where the artist drew a picture to correspond with every single page of Pynchon’s novel, but it didn’t arrive in time. “It had some trouble getting past customs,” he rolls his eyes, then snorts, “Canada. Hey, where’s The Crying of Lot 49?”

It is 11 p.m. At midnight, they’ll start slashing open the boxes.

Frequently asked questions: So, have you actually read Gravity’s Rainbow? So, what’s your favorite Pynchon novel? So, how many people do you think are going to show up tonight?

“I don’t know,” says Hauther, for the 1,085th time.

“But if you had to give it a number, what would you say?” Grown-up Harry Potter guy is nothing if not persistent.

“I’d say . . . 25.”

“Now, let me ask you this,” Potter guy continues. “If you can have a midnight selling for Thomas Pynchon on the eve of his novel’s release, then why not, on December 4, have a midnight book sale for the real greatest novelist of all time, Thomas Harris, and Hannibal Rising?”

“Oh my god,” says Hauther, “just, oh my god.”

By 11:30, the Brie is oozing, the Cabernet flowing. Women nuzzle the store cat, Lucy, whose job is to watch over the books at night. There is a pool going as to how many insane freaks — scratch that — devoted lovers of literature will show up to buy Against the Day mere minutes after Southern California bookstores are legally allowed to sell it. The Skylight bookseller girls, I decide, are terribly cute, in that sexy-librarian sort of way. They all seem to be wearing little tartan skirts and ballet flats, but they’re talking about how, yes, there really are serial killers in your attic. One of them separates from the pack to offer me wine in a plastic cup. Kerrie Kvashay-Boyle moved to this neighborhood three years ago specifically for the bookstore, so she could work there after graduating from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She smiles. It is just not fair: smart, cute and nice.

“It’s such a macho thing,” she’s saying, “Pynchon and his thousand-page novel. It’s like Harry Potter for grown-ups. It’s kind of exciting, thinking that Pynchon himself could show up, and nobody would even know it.”

Just the other evening, one of the three episodes of The Simpsons featuring a cameo appearance by Pynchon aired. Lisa and Moe the bartender go to a lit convention, and if you look closely, you’ll see the ever-mysterious Pynchon seated in the audience. You know it’s him because he’s wearing a paper bag over his head. Coincidence? Perhaps. But I quote Pynchon, who quotes Wernher von Braun: “Nature does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation.”

At midnight, people cheer and the boxes are opened. Someone hands me a small card that I’m to use to redeem the book I paid for earlier in the evening. The card says, “Hello! My Name Is Thomas Pynchon.”

Twenty big, macho books go out to 20 big, macho Pynchonites. Then Hauther claps his hand on my shoulder. “Thanks for coming, guys,” he says, turning to catch one of the sales clerks headed toward the back. “And make sure you clean up all that cheese.”