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The Hunt for a Possible Pynchon Novel Leads to a Name

Literary speculation begun by Harper’s Magazine is traced to an author in Hawaii—A.J. Perry

Earlier this week, a remarkable story appeared on the website of Harper’s: Art Winslow, the respected critic and former literary editor of The Nation, wrote that he had, perhaps, found a new, pseudonymous novel by the reclusive writer Thomas Pynchon. The novel in question, he explained, was Cow Country by Adrian Jones Pearson, the first book from Cow Eye Press, which appeared to have been created to publish it. To call Cow Country obscure would be an overstatement: published in April of 2014, it hadn’t made a blip on any literary radar. Before Winslow’s bombshell, the book had been quietly received two reviews that had been paid for by the author—in the Midwest Book Review and the trade publication Kirkus—and a third in the obscure San Francisco Book Review

Winslow’s evidence was scant, but his argument was persuasive. To begin with, Pearson admitted to using a pseudonym, and his rationale—explained in an “interview” published by Cow Eye Press—echoed Pynchon’s stance on literary fame and public figuredom. “I’ve always had a severe distaste for all the mindless biographical drivel that serves to prop up this or that writer,” said Pearson. “So much effort goes into credentialing the creator that we lose sight of the creation itself, with the consequence being that we tend to read authors instead of their works. In fact, we’d probably prefer to read a crap book by a well-known writer than a great book by a writer who may happen to be obscure.”

Pearson’s sensibility and style also matched Pynchon’s—or at least, it didn’t seem like a stretch to think there were significant overlaps. Cow Country, a satire of academia set at Cow Eye Community College, is full of in-jokes and goofs, silly characters and place names. According to Winslow, it also “seems to revel in its own delight of cultural esoterica, and it displays both a fondness for and a corresponding suspicion of countercultural motifs of the 1960s–70s.” Finally, there was thematic consistency: Cow Country shared with Pynchon’s novels a “feeling of dislocation, as if one were in a box with no side labeled ‘UP’ for orientation.”

And yet, for all of the similarities, there simply was no proof. Cow Eye Press LLC had been registered in Wyoming by a company that, as Winslow found, “offers virtual offices in a locale ‘known for business-friendliness and respect for privacy.’” Further internet searches revealed that the young press had submitted its documentation online. The playfully detailed (and, admittedly, very Pynchon-esque) websites for Cow Eye Press and Cow Eye Community College had been registered using a proxy registrar in October of 2014 and January of 2015, respectively. And Adrian Jones Pearson, Cow Eye Press, and Cow Eye Community College were on Facebook, but there were no smoking guns—and practically no friends or likes—on any of the pages. The trail was cold.

Perhaps owing to this lack of hard evidence, Winslow’s 3,000-word speculation ends up being something of a bait and switch. Beginning with the tantalizing possibility that there is a new Pynchon novel hiding in plain sight, he concludes with a major caveat: “Personally, I think that chance”—that Pynchon is the author—“is small, and encourage any reader who enjoys Pynchon’s work to check out Cow Country.” 

The post went viral. How could it not? Even without proof, the possibility that Pynchon was playing a giant practical joke on all of us was too enticing. Even after Pynchon’s publisher, Penguin Press, told New York magazine’s Nate Jones, "We are Thomas Pynchon's publisher and this is not a book by Thomas Pynchon,” people kept sharing Winslow’s piece, and the subsequent, inevitable writeups in Vice and The New York Times. In fact, many saw Penguin’s denial as proof of Pynchon’s involvement. Jones himself ended his piece with a wink: “But, then again, they would say that, wouldn't they?”

They would, I suppose, even if Thomas Pynchon had written Cow Country. But Thomas Pynchon didn’t write Cow Country. A.J. Perry probably did.

After reading Winslow’s piece, I did what any sad young literary man would: I emailed everyone I knew who might know if Pynchon had a secret, self-published book. The responses I got back were unanimous: No one knew who was behind Cow Country, but everyone was certain it wasn’t Thomas Pynchon. I did Reverse WhoIs searches for every plausible candidate, including Pynchon. I looked through every Disqus comment made by Cow Eye Community College. I searched for connections between Pynchon and Madison Grant, the early 20th century eugenicist whose book The Passing of The Great Race that Cow Eye Press claims to be reissuing this winter. (I did find one connection, but it didn’t lead anywhere, alas.) I briefly became convinced that Pearson was an adjunct professor in Illinois. 

Friday morning, I woke up to an email from Dr. Steven Moore, who I had emailed the previous evening. Moore, an esteemed literary scholar and author of the two-volume study The Novel: An Alternative History had provided Cow Country’s lone blurb. Moore told me that he knew the author, but declined to reveal his real identity—though he did confirm that it was not Thomas Pynchon. Moore went on to reveal that the author of Cow Country had published two books under a different name—a novel that had been published in 2000 and a novella that came out in the UK last year. He also told me that he had positively, if briefly, mentioned the author in the first volume of The Novel: An Alternative History and that he had later received a galley of Cow Country that had been mailed from Hawaii. The previous day, Adrian Jones Pearson had published a cheeky Facebook post—“Thomas who?”—that revealed his location: Koloa, Hawaii.

Later that morning, I searched Twitter to see if any progress had been made in the search for the secret author of Cow Country and saw this tweet, from the writer and critic Michael LaPointe:

Using Amazon’s “look inside” feature, I searched Moore’s book The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600 for mentions of “Russia.” The second result and only candidate was this: “George Singleton confidently called his 2005 novel Novel: A Novel but an uncertain A.J. Perry called his quirky 2000 book of fiction Twelve Stories of Russia: A Novel, I Guess. A quick Amazon search revealed that the setting of the latter book was, indeed, Russia and that Perry had written one other book, a novella, which was published last year in the UK by Thames River Press. A French translation of Twelve Stories of Russia: A Novel, I Guess was credited to “Anthony James Perry.” The bibliography was a match. So were the initials.

A.J. Perry’s web site, which is linked to by the author’s Amazon page, contained even more evidence that Perry and Pearson were one and the same. First, there was Perry’s very Pearson-like (or, perhaps, Pynchonesque) biography:

In an ideal world an author would have no claims to ownership of a work once it has been created. In this ideal world, each artifact of the imagination would exist on its own merits and would be expected to earn its unique destiny apart from its creator's artistic or personal attributes. In an ideal world we would judge a literary work solely upon the collection of words contained within its covers and would not concern ourselves with the role of its author as if it were somehow germane to that judgment. Novels and other creative works would be free to be themselves, while carefully crafted author biographies would be recognized for what they aspire to be. In an ideal world, we would read books, not authors; we would value the word itself, rather than the words about the word; and in all things, the artist would be secondary - subservient - to the artistry that has been produced. 

A. J. Perry is the author of three books. He is an idealist.

The second-to-last sentence is telling: on the rest of his website, Perry mentions being the author of only two books, Twelve Stories of Russia: A Novel, I Guess and The Old People.

The final question in the “Frequently Asked Questions” section on Perry’s website contains another winking reference to a third book:

Q: How long will it take you to write your third book?

A: I just did. 

The question of Hawaii remained, however—Perry’s manifesto of a biography made no mention of his residence. Coverage of his novella The Old People was more helpful. First, there was this blurb, from Dr. Manulani Aluli Meyer, author of Ho’oulu: Our Time of Becoming. Hawaiian Epistemology and Early Writings:

The Old People connects us with ancient truth, divinely guided through A.J. Perry. We touch all things and all things are connected to land, water, people, excellence, storytelling. Here is a rare look into the tangible nature of unseen coherence. This Indigenous novel matures epistemology—the philosophy of knowledge—into its function/form inspiring us to return, again, to the beauty of aina aloha. Our lands have always loved us. Our Hawaiian culture has always been present. Now is the time to practice what this means. This book has had an impact on me. The story, the remembering, the ideas, the hope it holds, the connection to all things. It is a small book with an infinite capacity. I see its impact on our peoples and Hawai'i. 

A review by Steven Mark in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser was even more explicit:

Hawaii writer Perry’s second book uses the story of a group of island people struggling to tie a knot as a metaphor to examine themes of cultural displacement and the ephemeral nature of life. Simple in its storytelling language and structure, the story reads like a fable. 

The Who.Is registration for Perry’s website confirmed that he was not only a resident of Hawaii, but that he had registered the site using a PO Box in Lawai, HI. Lawai is only three miles down the road from Koloa, where Adrian Jones Pearson had posted on Facebook. 

Finally, there's the copyright listing for Cow Country. The author is listed as "Adrian Jones Pearson, pseud. of Anthony James Perry (author of pseudonymous work)." The address is the same PO Box in Lawai. 

So who is A.J. Perry? And why did he go through the trouble of developing a distinct, anonymous identity and dense, online universe for a novel that was unlikely to receive much attention? 

If there's one thing that's truly Pynchonian about A.J. Perry, it's the extravagant air of mystery that surrounds him. It seems clear enough that A.J. Perry and Adrian Jones Pearson are the same person, but could Perry be yet another pen name? My source wasn’t sure, though internet searches did find records of an “Anthony J. Perry” living in Lawai. (It is, I suppose, still technically possible that A.J. Perry and Adrian Jones Pearson are both pen names for Thomas Pynchon, but this is highly, highly unlikely.) 

And then there’s the Winslow connection, which is one of the stranger aspects of this whole story. On Facebook, Winslow had this to say about how he discovered Cow Country

I receive both galleys and finished copies frequently, in this case it was a finished book, and actually its formatting seemed a little odd. I read just a bit and thought it was decent but threw it in a stack among many books for several weeks. When I picked it up again, I was perhaps five pages in when it struck me, first as a question, Who would write like this? And the answer was, Pynchon. I kept thinking, what if I'm wrong as I read along, but I became increasingly convinced that I was not, and if anything that early impression was strongly reinforced. 

It’s tempting to suggest that Winslow himself was in on the joke—that Perry/Pearson got in touch with himself and they cooked this whole thing up together. This always seemed unlikely, given Winslow’s sterling reputation in literary circles. Having spoken to Winslow on the phone about this scenario, I think it’s safe to put it completely to rest. Winslow adamantly denied knowing that Pynchon did not write Cow Country and, over the course of our short conversation, noted many similarities between that novel and Pynchon’s works. Winslow also told me that he received an email from Cow Eye Press after his piece went up which referred to his argument as “very astute.”

I emailed Perry last night. He responded by telling me that he didn't want to get “dragged into this story.” When I responded with a list of everything I had connecting him to Pearson, he demurred, and told me he was no interested in “influencing the narrative here, as much as that is still possible.” In neither email did he deny writing Cow Country. Perry has not yet responded to an email I sent early this morning with a list of questions. I'll update this post if he does. (One reason why Perry may be more willing to talk is that the AP published a piece last night at 12:34 a.m. ET concluding that Perry and Pearson were one and the same.)

Strangely, I received an email from a “Natalie” at Cow Eye Press one hour after Perry's most recent reply. Although, in researching the story, I could find no record that she existed, I sent her questions as well and will update this post if I receive a response. 

That leaves maybe the biggest question of all: why go through all of this trouble to remain anonymous? Both Perry and Pearson are consistent in arguing that an author’s work, not their biography, is what counts. This is, perhaps, the greatest irony of this strange situation: Cow Country is now receiving an enormous amount of attention based on the idea that it might have been written by a different reclusive author. 

UPDATE 12:54PM: When asked if A.J. Perry and Adrian Jones Pearson are pseudonyms for the same writer over email, A.J. Perry responded by saying, “I am not in a position to confirm or deny anything in this world. And really, such is the beauty of literature itself that, on some level, I think we can ALL be Adrian Jones Pearson. Including me.” Perry then indicated that “A.J. Perry” is a pseudonym and confirmed Moore’s account of their relationship. 

After being asked in a follow-up if "Anthony James Perry" was also a pseudonym, A.J. Perry wrote this to me: "I'm sorry if my answers seem evasive or coy; please know that this is not my intent. What's at stake here is something more essential than whether I am, or am not, this or that person. This is a battle pitting metaphor against literalness. And as an artist, I cannot lose this battle."

When asked what it was like to have a book he had written go viral because someone thought it had been written by someone else, Perry stuck to his story. “None of my books have gone 'viral,'" he wrote. "My first novel was published 15 years ago, and is currently out of print. And my second, which has been out for a year and a half, has sold about 30 copies since then. So definitely no virality here..... :(“ 

Cow Country is certainly getting a sales bump from all the publicity, however. The novel is currently ranked at 2,870 on Amazon; Pynchon's most recent novel, Bleeding Edge, sits at 56,418.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Steven Mark's first name.