Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Wanda Tinasky

Wanda Tinasky was Thomas Pynchon, and now she's a murderer and failed poet.

The Anderson Valley Advertiser is a small and cranky weekly newspaper from foggy Mendocino County, a coupla hours north of San Francisco. It caters to the surprisingly compatible blend of libertarianism & leftism that flourishes where loggers consort with '60s radicals among the redwoods & driftwood. By now, the AVA is quasi-legendary, and its writers are well aware of its appeal among lefty-yuppie patrons of the odd Bay Area bookstore that sells it for a buck or two.

Articles in the AVA have conformed to a reassuringly stable distribution over the past twenty years: polemics targeting Ed Meese & his ideological/aesthetic brethren, anti-offshore-drilling rants, occasional conservative contrarianism, breathtakingly vituperative takes on local politics, sports talk, and bad poetry. The "big city" media tend to regard the AVA with an isn't-that-quirky-and-isn't-NorCal-crazy condescension that's only justified 36% of the time.

Back in the '80s, someone claiming to be a bag lady named Wanda Tinasky began writing letters to the AVA. And the letters were pretty good: rambling, cruel, idiosyncratic, and funny, with lots of fancy words. Tinasky attacked local artists, joked about pop culture, tore down city councilmembers & the like, joshed with editor Bruce Anderson, and responded with a lovely poem to a gauntlet that had been thrown down (essentially, "ok, Ms. Fancypants, if you're so mean to other poets, why don't you submit a poem of your own?"). Tinasky's identity was a happy, harmless local mystery for a while.

Thomas Pynchon's Vineland was published in 1988. Bruce Anderson read it, noted its setting in a Northern California region not unlike Mendocino County, noted some textual & stylistic similarities, and declared that Tinasky was Pynchon. Leaping up in support of this theory were the usual assortment of literary obsessives, conspiracy theorists, local boosters, and cranks, no two of which are mutually exclusive categories. Tinasky herself coyly denied it. And then the letters stopped.

The Pynchon theory held a certain amount of sway when I first heard about the Tinasky letters in the '90s. Because I liked his books, because the notion was kind of neat, and because it appealed to my sense of regional pride (Pynchon had written to the AVA? Really?), I leaned toward believing the hype & read the collected letters with that tacit assumption.

Well, it wasn't Pynchon. It was probably a guy named Tom Hawkins, who wrote some Beatish poetry, eventually settling in Mendocino county where he stole & scammed for a living, apparently. So says the textual analysis of Don Foster, the guy who outed Joe Klein as the author of Primary Colors. Why did the letters stop? A bit of unpleasantness: Hawkins killed his wife & drove off a cliff.

Whether or not Hawkins actually wrote the letters, it seems obvious to me now that they're not the work of Pynchon. I'm so easily swayed. And now, to my great discredit, the letters also seem a lot less clever. Of course, they're still great fun to read. There are worse fates than becoming immersed in the petty squabbles of mid-1980s Mendocino county. Slightly pathetically, each throwaway reference-- with Pynchon's possible authorship looming in the editor's mind-- is reverently footnoted.

A brief quote: "I watch beakbusting on TV, mostly in hopes that two punchies will go berserk at the same time & beat the shit out of Michael Buffer."

I think the book, edited by TR Factor, is out of print. Probly on Ebay. What isn't?