About halfway into Thomas Pynchon’s inscrutable 1973 classic Gravity’s Rainbow, Soviet intelligence officer Vaslav Tchitcherine—the postmodernist novel’s antagonist—is in Kyrgyzstan, scheming to replace the locally-used Arabic script with Cyrillic. While there, he and his “faithful Kirghiz companion” Dzaqyp Qulan observe an ajtys, a traditional singing duel, during which one participant accuses the other of stealing his qumys (typically spelled kumis). It was this precise scene that brought Michael Horn, some 46 years later, to the Osh Bazaar in the capital city of Bishkek, where he struggled to suck down a glass of the fermented mare’s milk favored in the region.
“Kumis has always stood out to me as one of the most special drinks in Pynchon’s oeuvre,” he explains of the kefir-like beverage, which is a lightly alcoholic drink, in many ways the “beer” of the Eurasian steppe region. “So I was bored at work one day and booked flights to Kyrgyzstan.”
Horn, a 28-year-old Australian teacher of robotics, mathematics and science at a Melbourne high school, is the founder, author and test dummy behind Drunk Pynchon. The website, which he launched in 2014, catalogs his attempt to drink every alcoholic beverage mentioned in the notoriously abstruse author’s nine major works. Horn has been a Pynchon fan since he first attempted the “insane carnivalesque mountain of a book” known as Gravity’s Rainbow at age 16. He was addicted to the weirdness and difficulty of it, even if, like most people, he hardly understood what was going on.
“I’d say part of the key to enjoying the knottier Pynchon, especially when you’re pretty new to his work, is to accept that a whole bunch of stuff is going to fly right over your head,” Horn explains. He maintains, however, that reading Pynchon while drinking actually eases your mind into letting go of the need to completely decipher what is going on. Around the same time, Horn began to notice the significance of booze within Pynchon’s work itself when his most recent novel, Bleeding Edge, was released in 2013. “It’s by no means the most alcoholic of the books,” he explains, “but for some reason the way the Zimartinis and the King Kongs, the PBR and the frozen Margaritas help build the ’90s ambience stood out to me.”
Though he is hardly a besotted scribbler in the popular imagination like, say, Hemingway or Bukowski, Pynchon’s work rivals any author’s in the sheer quantity of alcohol mentioned and, certainly, in the variety. By Horn’s count, his eight novels and one short-story collection tally 348 different drinks, starting with an ad hoc vodka mixed with milk, canned vegetable soup and watermelon juice that appears in the opening chapter of Pynchon’s first novel, V., all the way to the turquoise trashy Hpnotiq drunk by Tallis Ice in the final few pages of Bleeding Edge.
Five years in, Horn has tasted through about one third of his list.
Some of Pynchon’s books are relatively dry by comparison. Only eight quaffs are mentioned in The Crying of Lot 49, while Against the Day cites 116 different drinks, including whiskey with turpentine and sulfuric acid, cigarettes soaked in absinthe, lambic beer and Sazeracs. For Horn, these drinks are more than mere background color—the extensive library of potions offers a lens to better understand Pynchon.
“A character rarely drinks anything weird or invented for no reason. The crazy drinks are playful reflections on the character or the situation, existing in something like the same register as the wacky character names Pynchon is so beloved for,” he explains. Horn uses the example of quimporto—a cocktail consisting of port, quinine, Coke and beef tea garnished with a cocktail onion—as a prime example. “Because [characters Clive Mossmoon and Marcus Scammony] are members of the British upper class, they are eccentric to the point of monstrosity.” (As an aside, Horn notes the inclusion of quimporto is classic Pynchon, where the reader can’t be totally certain whether he has made up the drink or not. I can confirm he most certainly made it up.)
Five years in, Horn has tasted through about one third of his list. Plenty of less challenging items remain—the warm case of Bud Light mentioned in Vineland for instance—but others he’ll probably never get to. He has yet to distill anything, like the “glazed jug of some liquid brain damage flavored with dill and coriander” distilled from oatmeal, as mentioned toward the end of Gravity’s Rainbow. Then again, he is currently trying to make “Pirate” Prentice’s home-brewed banana mead from that same book—something he dreams of sharing with Mr. Pynchon when it’s ready, though he has yet to extend the offer.
But Horn isn’t even sure that Pynchon drinks. Nor is the internet, which, for that matter, can’t even agree on where the reclusive octogenarian currently lives. A 2013 Vulture piece, however, reported on an incident that took place in the 1960s when Pynchon supposedly lost his temper at a then-girlfriend who desired a midday shot; he “exploded” at her, ultimately revealing that he had seen his mother, while drunk, puncture his father’s eye with a clothespin.
If Pynchon does indulge, however, Horn suspects he is a bit of a wine connoisseur. His books are littered with detailed references to specific vineyards and vintages, many of them too costly for a high school teacher and part-time blogger to acquire. Though, as Horn notes, referencing a certain 1999 Bordeaux blend that is the only thing capable of luring a certain character aboard the skyship Inconvenience in Against the Day: “Fans can always feel free to send me Lafite Rothschild bottles.”
A few of Horn’s most notable Pynchon drinks so far:
Included among a slew of an elderly landlord’s candies in Gravity’s Rainbow, Horn produced these himself by combining Bombay Sapphire gin with sugar, egg whites and gelatin. Though the experiment covered his kitchen in sticky, juniper-scented gunk, they tasted “not entirely undelicious.”
What Horn calls the most intimidating drink among Pynchon’s oeuvre—grain alcohol mixed with beef tea, grenadine, cough syrup and “bitter belch-gathering infusions” of blue scullcap, valerian root, motherwort and lady’s-slipper. Though he couldn’t acquire lady’s-slipper, he snagged the other roots and infused them into Polish grain alcohol. He found some surprising complexity in the result, but still lists this as possibly the most disgusting Pynchon drink.
Chaperoning a class trip to Kentucky offered Horn the perfect opportunity to gather a key component for the moonshine enjoyed at a New Year’s Eve wedding in Mason & Dixon. He collected some water from Conoloway Creek in a Sprite bottle and illicitly brought it back to Australia, mixing it with some Buffalo Trace White Dog. He was dismayed to later learn he had probably gone to the wrong creek.
It’s not all made-up drinks in the Pynchon canon. Horn had never before tried the Cognac, crème de cacao, and cream cocktail enjoyed by Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow. Though he’s not typically a fan of milky drinks, he found it surprisingly delicious and has since made it a regular part of his drinking rotation.
Doc and his lawyer, Sauncho, order a lunchtime round of these atypical tiki mind-erasers in Inherent Vice. Though Horn found the drink to be super boozy, that’s all in a day’s work for his blog, which he believes “gives getting fucked up on tequila Zombies a veneer of legitimate intellectual inquiry.”