Picks and Pans Review: Slow Learner

updated 05/14/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/14/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Thomas Pynchon

This book is made up of five stories, most of them published in little reviews in the early '60s, before V. and Gravity's Rainbow had made the author a literary cult figure. The stories show a clear progression. "The Small Rain" is a conventional tale about a soldier stationed in Louisiana. He and his buddies are sent into a swamp after a devastating hurricane. He sees bodies brought in, and he has a one-night encounter with a beautiful coed. Plot, characters and dialogue all seem utterly false. "Low-Lands" has a hero whose wife throws him out. He winds up with a friendly garbageman in a mysterious house where, outside, a beautiful gypsy calls him to love her. "Entropy" is about a party that has all the elements Pynchon handles so brilliantly in his later novels: pop references, trendy names ("Like who is better," one character says, "Sal Mineo or Ricky Nelson?"), foreign phrases, literary moments, sudden shifts to the surreal. "Under the Rose" has an international cast of dozens. Most are British colonials in Egypt. There are historical allusions and enough energy and ideas for a whole novel. "The Secret Integration" is a wildly comic story about some boys who are trying to infiltrate the adult world. Among the clutter of their trophies is a concrete bust of Alf Landon. Later they pay a visit to an alcoholic in an effort to help him. The best thing about Slow Learner is the introduction. Here the elusive Pynchon (there is no jacket photo) preempts critics by citing all the things that are wrong with these early efforts. He also manages to communicate some deceptively simple notions about the art of writing: "When we speak of 'seriousness' in fiction ultimately we are talking about an attitude toward death—how characters may act in its presence, for example, or how they handle it when it isn't so immediate." (Little, Brown, $14.95)

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