As you should all already know, the Pynchon in Public Podcast team have planted the glorious tombstone/nosecone on their quest both madcap and meticulous through Gravity’s Rainbow after the rocket. In small tribute to their gargantuan efforts, I shall here tackle perhaps the most intimidating drink found within those pages.
It’s maybe more like a (confronting) philosophy of drinking than a single drink, brought to us by Thomas Gwenhidwy, Pointsman’s only surviving coowner of the Book and later defector to the Counterforce and attendee of the Gross Suckling Conference. Page 169:
Gwenhidwy likes to drink a lot, grain alcohol mostly, mixed in great strange mad-scientist concoctions with beef tea, grenadine, cough syrup, bitter belch-gathering infusions of blue scullcap, valerian root, motherwort and lady’s-slipper, whatever’s to hand really. His is the hale alcoholic style celebrated in national legend and song. He is descended directly from the Welshman in Henry V who ran around forcing people to eat his Leek.
Who could read that and not want a little more Gwenhidwy in them? Conversely however, who could read that and ever want any of Gwenhidwy’s Freddie Quell-esque concoctions anywhere near them? This will be my sacrifice for Pynchondom.
I couldn’t come by any lady’s slipper (guess I could have soaked a woman’s shoe in some alcohol), but I have obtained valerian root, motherwort, and skullcap. These I have soaked in 95% Polish grain alcohol for about 18 hours to create those “bitter belch-gathering infusions.”
Bitter they are. And colourful! The valerian root is a warm orange-brown that louched beautifully when diluted, the skullcap a deep inky green, and the motherwort a lighter brighter green. But did I mention bitter? Even diluted by half, the three infusions are united by a bitterness somewhere between bracing and alarming.
All taste otherwise at first more or less like boiled-down bin juice. But once you get past that, there is some serious complexity—even some enjoyable complexity!—in there. The diluted motherwort infusion smells like an old hippie village. It starts out on the palate with some fresh citrusy bitterness, a bunch of parsleyish minty and generally herbal flavours, finishing up with an earthy aftertaste and a lingering prickly bitterness. The deep green skullcap is comparably kind and smooth, smelling strongly of freshly cut grass and tasting similar. There’s some perception of sweetness and lots of peppermint character in there too. Bitter too, of course.
The valerian root eclipses the other two in intensity, walloping you in the mouth with curry leaves, aniseed, fennel, and more peppermint. It’s sweetish, vaguely tangy, with a strong citrusy lemon character that emerges after a sip or two. I found it offensive as anything on first taste, but then actually pretty fascinating on subsequent sips. Like Fernet Branca’s feral cousin raised by wolves on a diet of nettles and tar.
These though, are not Gwenhidwy’s “great mad-scientist concoctions.” More like just the raw materials. Can we create a satisfying blend from these somewhat alarming starting points? Probably not! Could we die trying? Very possibly! If we are to have any remotest hope of success, some ingredients easier on the palate will have to be recruited into the mix. What’s that, Gwenhidwy? Grenadine, cough medicine, and beef tea? Uh… yeah, of course, perfect, perfect. Let’s do this:
Blend 1 – 1 part cough syrup, 1 part valerian root, 1 part motherwort, 1 part skullcap, 1 part grenadine, 2 parts beef tea.
I’ve started out just throwing everything together, but this considered mixology has somehow failed to uncover any great balance or delight. Its very sweet and sticky with a whole lot of alcohol burn and a harsh aniseed bitterness, like chewing hard on a mouthful of star anise. There’s a long overripe fruit aftertaste. Both too sweet and too harsh. The cough syrup I realise now is apricot flavoured and aggressively sugary. Gwenhidwy likely had some subtler classier ’40s syrup to work with in his concoctions.
Blend 2 – 1 part valerian root, 1 part beef tea
Let’s pull back a little. The valerian root was pretty interesting, why not just pair it with that classic mixer, beef tea. Somehow the result evokes tea that is too hot, without actually being hot. It’s tannic and heavy, dark fruits and perfume. A lingering burn on the back of the throat. The addition of a bit of grenadine smooths things out a bit, and brings out an interesting kind of tropical mouthwash character to the whole thing. Diluted with a bit more water it louches like hell and develops a really milky mouthfeel. Better, still not great.
Blend 3 – 1 part beef tea, 1 part skullcap, a dash of cough syrup, a dash of grenadine
Pond scum mixed with breakfast juice. Sliced dog food. Rotting fennel.
Things aren’t improving here. We attempted more blends after that, but the recording you understand grew somewhat fuzzier. My only tasting note written after this point simply reads ‘urgh.’ I must thank my brave drinking buddy whose hale hearty constitution and subtle palate helped me extract at least these impressions from what was really a bewildering onslaught of alcoholic voodoo.
I don’t think these concoctions were entirely lacking in promise though. The infusions had an intriguing enough character to make me believe that a sufficiently stout and dedicated soul could enjoy something fashioned from them. Gwenhidwy’s mixtures are described as “mad-scientist” concoctions, which might seem to align him further with Pointsman. But I’d argue that the nature of the drink puts him closer to the earth, closer to the witches, more preterite dirt and weeds and undergrowth than elect steel and paper and upper atmosphere. A blog post on Gnostic elements of Gwenhidwy’s character points out that Gwenhidwy’s described as “a pocket of color, a holdout against this whitening day,” and later drawn with a robin “peeking out from its nest in his beard.” It’s no surprise given all that that he ends up with the Counterforce. We see in his character again the communal, DIY, life-giving associations that often gather around alcohol in Pynchon’s work.
As I stumble towards the end of this post, let us turn our attention back to the terrific work of the PIPCast team, who stumbled not but grew only wittier and more deeply insightful as they marched further into the book. Their work will stand as a bulwark against madness, or at least a balm in insanity, for readers and rereaders of Gravity’s Rainbow for years to come. I have loved having their company in my podcast feed, and eagerly await the next season. Cheers and many congratulations to Chris, Bo, Michelle, Alan, Liam, and the whole sick rest of the crew!