Pacific Rimshot

Thomas Pynchon has been living out of the public eye for almost four decades now, a literary hermit who has succeeded by his very reclusiveness in attracting more attention than his less retiring colleagues. Seventeen years ago, his novel Gravity's Rainbow elevated Pynchon to cult-hero status, and ever since his acolytes have eagerly awaited a new blockbuster from their master. His new novel, Vineland, isn't quite it, but it offers an appropriately millenarian opening chord for the literature of the 1990's.

Vineland, the name the Vikings gave their version of North America a thousand years ago, is Pynchon's new world: the forested coast of northern California, where a generation of refugees from the 60's have settled to grow marijuana, live free or at least untroubled by reality, and die. One of them, protagonist Zoyd Wheeler, is the hippie Everyman, a drug-hazed veteran of the Free Speech Movement and the Haight, who lives from one federal disability check to the next, the only requirement for such support being that he commit one "publicly crazy" act each year, in full view of the dispossessed lumberjacks, hermits, punks, dopers, narcs, and yuppies who inhabit Zoyd's once-isolated world.

As the novel opens, Zoyd learns that his subsidy is being cut, for this is 1984 and Reaganomics is in full tilt. To add insult to fiscal injury, Zoyd's teenaged daughter Prairie...

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