Mistaken Identity



William Gaddis, self-portrait.

On March 29, 1962, the Village Voice ran a full-page ad touting the merits of William Gaddis’s The Recognitions—a book which had been published a good seven years before. As the ad notes, one of that novel’s major themes is mistaken identity, specifically forgery “of Old Masters, $20 bills, slings, personality, everything.” The text continues: “The Recognitions sold like cold cakes in hardcover because of stupid reviews by the incompetent, amateurish critics. Everyone ‘knows’ the critics are no good, but everyone believes them anyway. For an antidote, I offer my article ‘fire the bastards!’ … on sale at Village bookstores. Or mail me a quarter for it.” The ad was signed, rather bafflingly, with the name and address of one “jack green.”


The text to which green refers, Fire the Bastards!, an excoriation of the Recognitions’ original reviewers, came out in the pages of a paper called newspaper, typewritten, mimeographed, and stapled on beige, legal-size paper beginning in 1957. At the beginning of February Fire the Bastards! will be reissued in book form by Dalkey Archive Press, which first collected it (against green’s express wishes) in 1992. As interesting as it is on its own merits, as both a kind of literary performance art and as a commentary on Gaddis’s work and the state of literary reviewing in general, this strange document is eclipsed by the even stranger events that followed its mysterious publication. It spurred several decades of lively literary conspiracy theories—theories so rich with questions of mistaken identity that they could have emerged from Gaddis’s own pen.

Fire the Bastards! contains no punctuation, capital letters, or formatting. Its analysis reads like a stream-of-consciousness screed: “only 5 or 6 of 55 reviewers of the recognitions didn’t read it   the other 90% either got through it or theyre too smart for me […] FIRE the louiville courier-journal hack for taking every bit of his ‘review’ from the jacket […] im biased for reviewers who favored the recognitions except some who write like cold oatmeal   & this weird one who couldn’t possibly have read the book   stars. . . and embraces. . .”

Green’s essay caused a stir in New York’s literary community, not least by giving rise to speculation that Gaddis had either paid for it or that “jack green” was his pseudonym. The author certainly didn’t hide his pleasure in being so staunchly defended: “Here it is at last,” he wrote his editor, “a la revanche!

Rumors that Gaddis was the author spread to the West Coast, where one Tom Hawkins, a postal worker and beat poet living in San Francisco, became convinced of the theory. Hawkins decided to test his hypothesis by writing green an odd little letter in which he slyly queried whether green had noted the novel’s “Velikovskyan catastrophism.” “I presume that you are in contact with william gaddis,” the letter continued, “have you discussed this element of the recognitions with him?” Green promptly returned the missive—though not before scrawling the word “no” in red pencil. This wasn’t enough to convince Hawkins: in 1963 he self-published a book entitled Eve, The Common Muse of Henry Miller & Lawrence Durrell, which (title notwithstanding) set forth his belief that Gaddis and green were one and the same.

The antics hardly ended there. As luck would have it, this was the year that Thomas Pynchon’s debut novel V. was published. The New York Times Book Review described its author as “a recluse” living in Mexico, and for the first (but certainly not the only) time, Pynchonian apocrypha grew like mushrooms: he was an extraterrestrial, J. D. Salinger, who knows. One faction advanced the idea that the so-called Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Jr. was in fact William Gaddis, now writing under a different name after the failure of his first novel. That neither man allowed his photograph to appear on his books only fueled this hypothesis.

Later on, and back in California: it’s January 1984, and a series of letters signed “Wanda Tinasky” begin to appear in the leftist Mendocino County weekly Anderson Valley Advertiser, a paper that promised to, and did, print anything. The letters consisted of television reviews (“I admire Phil Donahue for calling himself a workaholic. Phil’s idea of work is sitting under a hair dryer.”), assessments of celebrities, and comedically acerbic commentary on local poets, artists, and politicians delivered with wit and literary flair. Ms. Tinasky, as the academic Don Foster later wrote, “described herself as an elderly Jewish bag lady, a White Russian émigré living outside the Fort Bragg limits, under a bridge” who sometimes wore the AVA as underwear. This description, it’s perhaps unnecessary to say, was not widely credited, especially given that Tinasky displayed a marked interest in questions of authorship, authenticity, and disguise. One of her letters, published in August 1985, stated unequivocally that “the novels of William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon were written by the same person.” A year later, the rabble-rouser offered a guess as to who: it was jack green who “published commercially under the names of William Gaddis & Thomas Pynchon.” In September 1988, Tinasky’s letters abruptly stopped arriving in the AVA’s mail.

Still, these pronouncements about green’s identity sparked new suspicions—the plot, already pretty thick, began to rapidly congeal. Who, many wondered, would concoct such a far-fetched theory about that famous “recluse” Pynchon other than Pynchon himself, trying to put people off the scent? In 1990, Bruce Anderson, the AVA’s publisher, printed an announcement in the paper. “SUSPICIONS CONFIRMED,” it read. “The justly famous American novelist, Thomas Pynchon, is almost certainly the pseudonymous comic letter writer, Wanda Tinasky.” Anderson had been reading Vineland when lightning struck: Pynchon’s novel, with its aging California hippies and general zaniness, was the spitting image of what Wanda called her own “thinly veiled novel of life in romantic Mendecino.” Six years later, this theory was alive and well among Pynchonians. The evidence was circumstantial: several instances of near overlap between Pynchon’s novels and Wanda’s letters; the fact that both used to work at Boeing; a shared fondness for funny songs and the expression “to be 86’ed”; an obsession with the Pulitzers; and oddball comedic sensibilities. Literary critic Steven Moore begins his introduction to the collected Letters of Wanda Tinasky: “Well, if it ain’t Pynchon, it’s someone who has him down cold.” Pynchon’s wife, Melanie Jackson, wrote in response to the Letters to say that she had consulted the author and his editors, and that no one could see a resemblance between the letters and what Moore (somewhat contradictorily) had called Pynchon’s “inimitable literary style.” Jackson’s denial made little difference, however; in the end, Pynchon felt compelled to make a rare public statement, calling CNN to deny authorship. In his opinion, it was Anderson who was the most likely person behind the Tinasky hoax.

But it was too too little and too late: as Pynchon wrote in Gravity’s Rainbow, “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.” Don Foster—a Shakespeare scholar who’d developed a reputation as a “forensic linguist” and who, earlier that year, had exposed Joe Klein as the author of Primary Colors—was commissioned by the Letters editor to prove (with any luck) that Pynchon was Tinasky. The investigation took two years, but Foster finally followed the trail to a property in Medecino, where he discovered a shed containing an Underwood typewriter and a letter to jack green with the word “no” written on it in red pencil. Foster had found Wanda at last: she was none other than the poet Tom Hawkins, a man who, appropriately, had been known to disguise himself before going out. Foster also discovered the tragic story behind Wanda’s sudden silence: in 1988, perhaps under the influence of homegrown opium, Hawkins had bludgeoned his wife Kathy to death in his truck. After mourning her for several days in their home, he set the house aflame, and, in Kathy’s car, drove off a ninety-foot cliff into the sea by Bell Point. Foster published these conclusions in 2000 in his Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous. The Wanda Tinasky Web site abruptly went blank.

Foster, though, had one more mystery to solve. The ubiquitous Steven Moore, having read Foster’s book, wrote in to say that he had discovered the identity of jack green: green was, in fact, a former actuary named Christopher Carlisle Reid. After reading The Recognitions in the Spring of 1957, Reid had walked out of his office at the Metropolitan Life Insurance building in New York and thrown his tie and dress shirt into the fountain in Madison Square. Going home in his T-shirt, he tossed his razor, alarm clock, and mirror out the window and adopted the nom de plume jack green, apparently taken from Jack’s Little Green Card, a popular horseracing tip sheet. Reid was the son of the novelist Helen Grace Carlisle; his stepfather worked as a textbook editor at Harcourt, Brace, which—coincidentally?—was Gaddis’s publisher. It had actually been from Gaddis that Moore learned green’s identity: Gaddis had met Reid in 1959. Reid, who made his living post-insurance as a freelance proofreader, had presented Gaddis with a list of The Recognition’s typos.

“I have generally shied from parading personal details,” Gaddis wrote in 1968, “[from] the sense … that we are never as unlike others as we can be unlike ourselves.” And so, as Foster writes in Anonymous, poor Tom Hawkins “was only two-thirds mistaken. Gaddis is Gaddis, and Pynchon is Pynchon, but jack green was not really jack green.” It remains to the especially Pynchonian-minded reader to wonder whether Don Foster is really who he claims to be.

Jenny Hendrix is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.