|Gravity's Rainbow byThomas Pynchon - 1973 - Bantam|
I’m in 10th grade and see the book on the shelf at Maida’s Used Books, thick paperback, golden spine, name and author. I pull it out and look at the back cover. "Fantastic", "Dazzling", "Brilliant", "Tremendous", but nothing telling me what the book is about. The first line is a grabber, okay, but what’s the book about? I open it randomly and read a passage where a guy squeezes a certain Jessica Swanlake through her damp knickers and think, okay I can maybe get into this, and take the book home with me.
Later I realize, somewhat to my consternation, that there is a whole lot of white noise to wade through to get to that babe with her damp knickers, and I’m not sure I want to bother. I put the book down and decide to read NORTH DALLAS FORTY instead. But then my English teacher, Mr. Patterson, unkempt in his wrinkled sport coat and long black hair, sees GR among my jumble of textbooks. “Kurt! You’re reading that book? Heh heh heh…”
“I guess so,” I tell him. “I just started it. What’s it about anyway.”
Patterson gives me a look like something made it worthwhile to come in that day and face his bored and listless students after all. “Just read it,” he says with his Hollywood smirk.
Years later, I’m TDY in Germany and drinking in a discotheque in Bremerhaven, checking out a woman with a shaved head at the bar near me. I’ve been separated from my comrades and I’m alone in this place with music something a lot like Kraftwerk loud all around me before Der Schprokets brought them to Saturday nights in America, and much preferable to Laura Branigan’s “Self Control” that is heard multiple times at every club we go to. I glance at the woman with the shaved head, fuzzily aware that I can’t do anything about it without knowing more than a few words in German, to the shame of my ancestors, when a pretty young woman approaches me and asks if I’m American. Immediately my defenses are heightened, envisioning a drunken American rolled of his money in an alleyway because of the lure of a Cute German Girl but I know that denying it would be futile. “Yeah, I’m American,” I tell her. “It’s that obvious?”
The Cute German Girl invites me to join her and her friends, one of whom is also an American. I like the way her dark hair sweeps down her shoulders and her dusky eyes (no, not really Bette Davis Eyes but sleepless and slatternly and she could be a spy regardless) and follow her. Her American friend is some hipster from New York, and we talk about American shit as I think of ways I could make it with the Cute German Girl next to me. Hours pass and we part the night as best friends who will never meet again and saddened by the loss of the Cute German Girl to the night I hail a cab and say “Luftwaffe, bitte...” The cabbie nods his head and says “Drei Funf” (with Umlauts) and we roll.
Back in the barracks I pull GR out of my duffle and try reading, but can’t concentrate while thinking of the Cute German Girl and her dusky eyes, Kraftwerk, bald chicks, beer, nocturnal emissions at La Club Femina and the touch of a dewy female thigh under the spinning lights as “Self Control” spins yet again, and I barely make to the porcelain plates for toilets to spew foamy beer, bratwurst and Pommes Frites mit Mayo against it, splashing tiles and porcelain like that cow in Texas pissing on a flat rock. I wipe my mouth and flush twice because it’s a long way to England and stagger back to my bunk, dreaming about the Cute German Girl kissing me goodbye beside the incomprehensible graffiti on the wall at my back before turning her dusky eyes away, and my book falls on the floor next to my bunk, ignored and rejected once again...
At FSU my senior year in English and my professor is the same Douglas Fowler who wrote The Guide to Gravity’s Rainbow and I’m thinking, shit, I’ve got to read GR after all, and write a 5000 word essay on it and be tested on it and I don’t think he’s going to give a tinker’s damn about my Jessica Swanlake fantasies spun out into reveries about Cute German Girls with dusky eyes and the back of my trench coat stenciled with graffiti in reverse, but it turns out that we’ll be reading THE CRYING OF LOT 49 instead. Not a problem, I can put that baby down in an afternoon and still be ready for beer and wings at Bullwinkles where maybe I’ll catch that little blond twist from my Chaucer class into a moonlight dance.
So years go by, not measured in coffee spoons but in cigarette butts and midnight stints as a hotel dick in Scottsdale, psychotic girlfriends, corporate whiners, layoffs, spreadsheets, year-end closes, 3AM airports and dirty buses and trips to Germany, and that goddamn book still sits on the shelf when I finally take it down one afternoon after turning 50 and notice my scrawl at age 16 still there on the first page. The one I wrote so long ago in anticipation of a good dirty read about WACs with wet knickers.
I finish GR at last, this thick friend now faded and furry from 35 years of neglected companionship, but waiting for me regardless from bookshelves to duffle bags, smelling the beer and the bongs and the discount perfumed bedsheets and dirty laundry and burnt mac ‘n cheese and desperation, elation, failure and success, it waited for consummation at last, and I wonder what my old high school English teacher, Mr. Patterson, would say now that his once greasy black hair has turned snow white with his black eyes peering out beneath albino caterpillars. He’d probably give me that Jack Nicholson sneer he does so well and say “Jesus, Kurt. What took you so long?”