Tommy Boy turns eighty today, and while I won’t say that counts as officially old, it is a pretty creditable age. No doubt he’s got another book coming together, as vivid and profound as anything before…
On the occasion of our Chief Chum of Chance’s 80th, I’m toasting Pynchon in Public Day with an 18 year old bourbon.
Aged bourbon is the last drink mentioned in Gravity’s Rainbow. It’s not exactly portrayed in a glowing light—more smoky sinister cartelised light. In a late prolepsis to L.A. in the 80s, one Richard M. Zhlubb is driving you (yes you) along the Santa Monica Freeway in his black Managerial Volkswagen. Zhlubb’s cracking jokes, and they’re going down oddly well in a car with just the two of you… Page 756:
Laughter surrounds you. Full, faithful-audience laughter, coming from the four points of the padded interior. You realize, with a vague sense of dismay, that this is some kind of a stereo rig here, and a glance inside the glove compartment reveals an entire library of similar tapes: CHEERING (AFFECTIONATE), CHEERING (AROUSED), HOSTILE MOB in an assortment of 22 languages, YESES, NOES, NEGRO SUPPORTERS, WOMEN SUPPORTERS, ATHLETIC—oh, come now—FIRE-FIGHT (CONVENTIONAL), FIRE-FIGHT (NUCLEAR), FIRE-FIGHT (URBAN), CATHEDRAL ACOUSTICS…
Everything’s pretty impressionistic and weird late in the book here, unlike the straight narrative rest of the thing, and now we have a mysterious convoy of vehicles with FUNERAL stickers:
The Volkswagen is now over downtown L.A., where the stream of traffic edges aside for a convoy of dark Lincolns, some Fords, even GMCs, but not a Pontiac in the lot. Stuck on each windshield and rear window is a fluorescent orange strip that reads FUNERAL.
The Manager’s sniffling now. “He was one of the best. I couldn’t go myself, but I did send a high-level assistant. Who’ll ever replace him, I wonder,” punching a sly button under the dash. The laughter this time is sparse male oh-hoho’s with an edge of cigar smoke and aged bourbon. Sparse but loud. Phrases like “Dick, you character!” and “Listen to him,” can also be made out.
The funeral stickers may herald the imminent white-out doom of the book’s close, but Zhlubb (a Nixon stand-in, according to Weisenburger) just thinks it’s funny, more Santa Monica kazoo-playing hippy freak nonsense. His pre-recorded audience are a facsimile Them, a narrow male in-crowd laughing through cigar smoke and bourbon at the preterite masses.
Aged bourbon, that is. The ordinary stuff might get a bit close to the moonshine all those dirty old-West anarchists in Against the Day are always drinking. All bourbon is aged for at least two years, and most for four to twelve. But this one is aged aged, making it a bit more suitable for those chuckling capitalists.
That extra agedness sure does comes at a price. The angel’s share of evaporation means that a bourbon barrel in Kentucky will only be 1/3rd full after 18 years. A bottle of the Elijah Craig 18 year old I’m getting into here slips well outside my price range. But happily the incomparable Whisky and Alement in Melbourne sells the stuff by the dram.
Age can of course turn a person bitter and twisted, as perhaps has happened to Zhlubb, but it can also develop deepen nuance and complexify character, as no doubt it continues to do for Mr Pynchon. The same goes for bourbon, with some arguing that 18 years is perhaps too old. As far as I can tell though, this one has aged gloriously.
It’s a rich copper colour, with a dense intricate cloud of an aroma—Drunk Pynchonette and I picked out fruitcake spice and sweetness, with hints of marzipan and citrus, along with a backbone of old wood. That’s before we drank any. It tasted smooth, sweet, spicy, very complex, and very balanced—almost more like a perfectly made old-fashioned than straight bourbon. Orange oil, spice, a lingering sweetness and vanilla on the back. Woody notes like a barrel stave against the roof of my mouth, intense but somehow restrained and certainly not overpowering. Good stuff.
Happy birthday Thomas Pynchon, and happy Pynchon in Public day all!