Thomas Pynchon's South Bay Years

From Robby Herbst:

Anyone who’s been to Manhattan Beach anytime in the last 20 years or so will likely find little in common with Gordita Beach — the fictional locale of Thomas Pynchon’s universe, thought to be based on the beachfront community south of Los Angeles — but the few landmarks that remain are helpfully pointed out in these two pieces below.

Gordita Beach is the setting of Pynchon’s new stoner-noir, Inherent Vice, and also makes a brief appearance in Vineland, his 1990 novel set amidst the schizophrenics, hippies and rednecks of the Northern California redwoods. Though his whereabouts have usually been unknown over the course of his career, the famously reclusive writer lived in Manhattan Beach in 1969-70 while he was writing Gravity’s Rainbow, and in keeping with his near invisibility beyond the bookshelf, there’s little trace left of his presence, or the enclave of “paranoid dope-smokers, surfers and ‘stewardii'” of Inherent Vice.

The Daily Breeze did a compare and contrast piece on modern-day Manhattan and Gordita Beaches in its August 8, 2009 edition: Surprise! Most of the good bookstores are gone, it’s all overrun with horrible lawyers, the landmarks have been plastered over with Oliver Garden-inspired facades and hardly anybody remembers that one of the most significant literary works of the late 20th Century was written there:

But around the South Bay, the response has been more muted. Over the past few years the beach cities have lost their best independent bookstores – such as Either/Or Bookstore in Hermosa Beach, where Pynchon was alleged to be a customer – and Manhattan Beach has been slow to claim Pynchon as a local author.

“Manhattan Beach has a way of shoveling under that kind of countercultural history,” said Frost, whose extensive report on Pynchon’s local ties can be found at http://www.tinyurl.com/macb29. “He occupied a time in history that doesn’t get recorded very well in the South Bay.”

You can read the Breeze piece by clicking here or keep scrolling down to the bottom of our post.

For a more in-depth look at Pynchon’s South Bay years, we’ll refer you to the Garrison Frost history that The Breeze is talking about, originally published in 1999 in his journal of South Bay ephemera, The Aesthetic. Several amusing tidbits:

First and foremost, though, Pynchon was a writer, according to Hall. He was known to lock himself up in his apartment for days and weeks at a time while writing “Gravity’s Rainbow,” often going so far as to block out the windows with towels.

Guy recalled that, while doing research for the book, Pynchon translated an entire book of Russian history using only an English/Russian dictionary.

Perhaps the most interesting tale that Hall has regarding Pynchon is of their last meeting. It was around 1975 and he hadn’t seen the author since the two chatted at the counter at El Tarasco a couple of years earlier. By chance, Hall found himself back in Manhattan Beach and met Pynchon on the sidewalk near the Fractured Cow.

“I was walking down the street and he was walking toward me,” Hall said. “Our paths crossed right in front of a pay phone, our eyes met and we recognized each other. I asked how he was and at that moment the telephone rang. He looked at me and looked at the phone, then turned around and ran down the street, and I never saw him again.”

Click here to keep reading “Thomas Pynchon and the South Bay” at The Aesthetic’s website. And if you haven’t gotten a copy of Inherent Vice yet, Amazon’s currently offering a free download of the first chapter as PDF.

Read “Fictionalized Manhattan Beach comes to life in Pynchon novel” from The Daily Breeze after the jump …

Fictionalized Manhattan Beach comes to life in Pynchon novel
By Gene Maddaus Staff Writer
Posted: 08/08/2009 10:10:40 PM PDT

It’s been about 40 years since author Thomas Pynchon lived in Manhattan Beach, but his latest novel is rich with his recollections of the beach enclave and other parts of the South Bay.

“Inherent Vice,” released Tuesday, is a detective novel set in fictional Gordita Beach – a stand-in for Manhattan Beach.

Pynchon, 72, is famously reclusive. He does not give interviews and little is known about his life or his whereabouts since the early 1960s.

But a decade ago, local journalist Garrison Frost gathered recollections from acquaintances who claimed to know Pynchon when he lived in Manhattan Beach in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when he was writing his best-known book, “Gravity’s Rainbow.”

The new novel – the first Pynchon has set in the South Bay – buttresses those claims, as it seems to have been written by someone familiar with the petty aggravations of local life.

For example, Pynchon describes Rosecrans Avenue as a “chuckholed obstacle course,” and includes this passage on local parking:

“The kindest thing anybody’d ever called the parking in Gordita Beach was nonlinear. The regulations changed unpredictably from one block, often one space to the next, having been devised secretly by fiendish anarchists to infuriate drivers into one day forming a mob and attacking the offices of town government.”

There are also references to local history, including a riff on Gordita Beach’s troubled past. Egged on by the Ku Klux Klan, locals are said to have burned a black family’s house to the ground and then confiscated the land for a local park.

That seems to be a clear reference to Bruce’s Beach, which was a black resort until the city of Manhattan Beach seized it in 1924 and turned it into a park. According to local historian Jan Dennis, there was an active local chapter of the KKK and black-owned homes were often torched.

Among a certain crowd, the release of a new Pynchon novel is a major event. Book Soup in West Hollywood and Skylight Books in Los Feliz each held midnight release parties Tuesday, so Pynchon fanatics could pick up the book as soon as it was available.
But around the South Bay, the response has been more muted. Over the past few years the beach cities have lost their best independent bookstores – such as Either/Or Bookstore in Hermosa Beach, where Pynchon was alleged to be a customer – and Manhattan Beach has been slow to claim Pynchon as a local author.

“Manhattan Beach has a way of shoveling under that kind of countercultural history,” said Frost, whose extensive report on Pynchon’s local ties can be found at www.tinyurl.com/macb29. “He occupied a time in history that doesn’t get recorded very well in the South Bay.”

The Gordita Beach of Pynchon’s fiction is a funkier place than modern-day Manhattan Beach. Gordita is populated by paranoid dope-smokers, surfers and “stewardii” who fly out of nearby LAX.

The novel is set at a turning point in the culture war. Charles Manson is about to go on trial, and the Los Angeles Police Department is portrayed as a paramilitary organization.

Some local landmarks referenced in the book – such as the Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa Beach – are still around. But much else has changed.

“There’s been a gentrification here since the ’60s,” said longtime local resident Don Spencer. “It costs more to live here, and that seems to attract people who have been relatively successful. Either that or relatively lucky.”

That cultural shift may help explain why “Inherent Vice” has received little local attention. Dave Prentice, owner of Dave’s Olde Book Shop in Redondo Beach, said the local clientele now consists largely of lawyers – who for some reason prefer science fiction – and their wives.

“The wives are susceptible to buying expensive books if you tell them they can’t afford them,” Prentice said. “We also sell books by the foot to interior decorators, but they’ve got to be the right color.”

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About Jay Babcock

I am the co-founder and editor of Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curator of the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was one of five Angelenos listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. Today, I live a peaceful life in Tucson, Arizona with Stephanie Smith. https://linktr.ee/jaywbabcock

2 thoughts on “Thomas Pynchon's South Bay Years

  1. Pingback: Link You: 8.11.09 | Impose

  2. Photos from back in the very early 70s…… many great musicians lived and played in the area… we lived at 800 Strand…….. also, I met Phomas Pynchon. I was visiting a close friend of his in Eureka, CA….. walked into this old Victorian house and he was standing at the stove baking a blueberry pie… we spent 3 days together… including the fair. Very nice guy…

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