A Genius Among US - For A While

Thomas Pynchon is a slippery character. For nearly 30 years, he has maintained a life so private that even that other fabled literary recluse, J.D. Salinger, seems positively gregarious.

Although Pynchon is now 52, only two photographs of him have ever been published - one from his high-school yearbook, the other taken a few years later. The trail of the elusive author turned cold in 1963, not long after he left, of all places, Seattle.

I was surprised to learn recently that Pynchon had lived here in the early '60s; indeed, city directories from those years say that a Thomas R. Pynchon (``Pyncheon'' in one listing) lived at 4709 1/2 Ninth Ave. N.E., in the University District.

Today, that apartment at the back end of a larger home is a squalid, uninhabited wreck, closed by the city until a host of ``inadequacies'' - from ventilation and sanitation to the electrical system and heating - is remedied.

But do you suppose that the ratty purple-velveteen couch, now a sodden heap in the front room, is the very spot where Pynchon dreamed up the baroque complexities of his first novel, ``V.''? He was writing it during his Seattle years, and it was published not long after he left. I first discovered that wonderful book in 1965, when I was a Peace Corps volunteer living in Tanzania; the extravagant adventures of Benny Profane, Herbert Stencil and the unforgettable Pig Bodine enlivened many a long African night. I didn't want ``V.'' to end.

Back in this country in 1967, I remember sending a copy of Pynchon's second novel, ``The Crying of Lot 49,'' to a girlfriend still in Tanzania. ``If you want to know what's really going on in America today,'' I declared in a letter, ``this is the book to read.'' The novel drew upon every ounce of pop-culture energy in the late '60s; but Pynchon himself had disappeared into the era's frenzied maw, reportedly to a peripatetic life among friends, traveling incognito.

Actually, a fair amount is known about Pynchon's early years: His birth in 1937 in Glen Cove, Long Island, to a Republican family whose American history stretches back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony; his graduation, at barely 16, from Oyster Bay (N.Y.) High School, the class salutatorian; his study - interrupted by two years in the Navy - at Cornell (B.A., 1959), where he excelled in everything from physics to English; even his close college friendship with Richard Farina, the folk singer and writer who was killed in a motorcycle accident not long after marrying Joan Baez's sister, Mimi.

The 22-year-old Pynchon was already writing ``V.'' when he accepted a job as a technical writer for Boeing and moved to Seattle. He worked there from Feb. 22, 1960, to Sept. 13, 1962, and a few former employees have vivid memories of a young man whose brilliance was matched by an eccentricity that was rare within Boeing's strait-laced confines.

``He was a very self-contained individual, and he didn't associate much with his fellow workers,'' recalled Boeing retiree Walter Bailey, who worked in the same section and who developed a fleeting friendship after Pynchon responded to a literary allusion Bailey used in a memo: ``He was taken aback. He seemed surprised that anyone in the office would know anything like that.''

Bailey confirmed another story I had heard: Pynchon would sometimes avoid the office hubbub by covering his desk - and himself - with a huge sheet of paper used for technical drawings. Apparently it was an effort to concentrate.

Kenneth Calkins, once a writer for Boeing magazine, remembers a tall young man with jeans, long hair and a ``kind of Wyatt Earp-type handlebar mustache.'' He met Pynchon after complimenting him on an article he had written for another Boeing publication.

``He did a story on the soldering of electronic circuitry, which I have absolutely no interest in,'' Calkins recalled. ``But I thought, my gosh, how can a guy make a story about this so interesting?''

Pynchon was just practicing, I suspect - taking a break from ``V.'' and warming up for ``Gravity's Rainbow.''

Donn Fry's column appears Sunday on the Books page of The Times.