NEW YORK -- I just needed a vacation from my life. You never heard of that? -- From Thomas Pynchon's "Vineland" One of the longer literary silences of modern times will come to an end next week with the release of 100,000 copies of "Vineland," Thomas Pynchon's eagerly awaited and closely guarded new novel. In "Gravity's Rainbow," his 17-year-old previous effort -- still touted by some high-powered fans as quite possibly the greatest American novel of the century -- there's a metaphor that explains what will happen. "A screaming comes across the sky." That, in one of the most famous first sentences of American literature since "Call me Ishmael," is how the novel begins, with the descent of one of Hitler's V-2 bombs onto London. But these rockets travel faster than the speed of sound: If you can hear a V-2 coming in, that means it must already have landed elsewhere, and you're safe. Whereas if you hear nothing, you may soon be dead. First, as one critic put it, the annihilation. Then the warning. So it is with "Vineland." No galleys were issued to reviewers or foreign publishers -- the first time anyone can remember this being done with a novel. Everyone will be making their minds up at the same time. That, at least, was the way it was supposed to be. Yet, as sometimes happens with these things, samizdat manuscripts are surfacing. At least three unauthorized readers -- all real Pynchon buffs -- profess themselves disappointed, meaning either their expectations were too high or that it's not an easy task to follow up what is quite possibly the greatest American etc. Perhaps more damning is the fact that none of the three had finished it yet. "A lot of it seems to be trying to send up contemporary California culture, which is a topic that's certainly been done and done and done," says one of these fans. "The Pynchon I like best is very highly wrought, multilayered, embedded with puns and metaphors. Everything has more than one possible meaning, which is where the paranoia comes from. But 'Vineland' seems lacking in that ambiguity and wit, with too much of his hepcat attitudinizing." Others disagree. "It's a book that isn't comparable to much of anything," says David Willis McCullough, one of the Book-of-the-Month Club judges who chose it as a main selection. "I think we're far enough away from the '60s now that even people who aren't nostalgic are curious. It's sort of, What did you do in the great '60s, Daddy? And 'Vineland' seems a marvelous farewell to that era." The title comes from mythical Vineland County in Northern California, scene of much of the action. In a roundabout way, this is a novel about the war on drugs, although it probably won't do much to brighten czar William Bennett's Christmas. Everyone wants to ice thuggish federal prosecutor Brock Vond, and for Vond -- who deploys the largest assemblage of paramilitary forces this side of Tom Clancy -- the feeling is mutual. Zoyd Wheeler is the hero. He's an offbeat type who once each year jumps through a Vineland storefront window, just for the hell of it, and spends much of his free time obsessing "about his wife -- he never would get too comfortable with 'ex-wife' -- and managing to bum out everybody inside a radius even these days considered respectable." He used to play the lounge piano for Kahuna Airlines, a very deregulated operation where the passengers arriving in Honolulu weren't always the same as those departing Los Angeles. Yes, it's that kind of novel. "Why should things be easy to understand?" Pynchon once supposedly asked a friend, but in "Vineland" he seems to have succumbed to the urge. You can already hear the reviewers sniffing wounded prey. Thomas Pynchon's long-awaited novel wasn't worth the wait... . Yet even if the critics vote thumbs down, those 100,000 copies will still sell on the mystery of the man himself. The betting in the literary community is that, no matter how good or bad "Vineland" is, it will be the season's fashionable novel -- the one to leave strategically on your coffee table and to casually mention at cocktail parties. It's the appeal of the concealed. In an age when everyone sooner or later shows up on "Nightline" or "Donahue," Pynchon has achieved the remarkable trick of becoming progressively less visible. As long ago as his first novel, "V." (1963), he was a fuzzy, blurry, barely discernible image, one who led Life magazine photographers on a fruitless chase through the wilds of Mexico. Now he's gone off the screen entirely. The last published picture is in his 1953 high school yearbook; the most recent personal details date from the mid-'70s. In the 1980s, not one verifiable fact has materialized. Is it true he has no possessions, and sleeps on the floors of his friends and agent? That he will spend hours or days researching, say, the best kind of brick, and will visit the riverbank in Philadelphia where the clay comes from just so he can refer to it with assurance? That he once stocked his kitchen not with groceries but empty cans of Hills Brothers coffee? That, back in the '60s, he made off with writer Jules Siegel's wife, as Siegel complained at great length in the pages of Playboy? Or that, when you take away being a great writer, there's almost nothing interesting about him? And just why the heck is he this way, anyway? There's even a local connection. Rockville rare-book dealer Allen Ahearn remembers a man coming into his store in the early '80s to buy copies of Pynchon's novels. The guy claimed the books were for a woman who was living here with the novelist. Pynchon, the fellow said, wanted to give her the books as a going-away present. It's just another rumor, and not even a particularly believable one. Add them all up and you have a picture of an obsessive, cunning, determined writer, one who not surprisingly has chosen paranoia as his chief subject. Pynchon doesn't want to be traced, and has gone to every effort to make it impossible to do so. If his life can't be known, however, it's still possible to measure his shadow. This story, then, isn't so much about Pynchon as his effect on John Calvin Batchelor, one of many awaiting the new book, one of a number of novelists influenced by the last. Respected but little known, his own career began with a series of articles in an obscure New York weekly back in '76 and '77. The thesis: Thomas Pynchon was and always had been a pseudonym for the second most-secretive writer in America, J.D. Salinger. In a Cuban restaurant near Columbia University, Batchelor picks up a copy of "Gravity's Rainbow," which even in paperback is the size of a couple of bricks. One clue, he notes, involves the poets Emily Dickinson and Rainer Maria Rilke. "Both are Salinger's heroes, and both are in here," he says, pointing to the copyright page, where the only two writers acknowledged are Dickinson and Rilke. "Salinger saw himself as retiring up there in New Hampshire, the same way Dickinson had. It all clicked." It makes a certain amount of sense. When Pynchon published his first two stories in 1959, the already-reclusive Salinger was in an extremely uncomfortable position: sought out by his adoring fans while simultaneously strafed by the critics. "A nom de plume," Batchelor wrote in the Soho News, "now afforded Salinger the anonymity he had sought but failed to find as Caulfield's creator. It was the perfect cover." And there was Salinger saying sometime after he published a long story in the New Yorker in 1965 (still his last printed work) that "he was writing fine, don't worry about him, he was writing about his war experiences. And it just so happened that 'Gravity's Rainbow' was about the same kind of war experiences Salinger had. This is very creepy, but Salinger was a member of a four-man counterintelligence squad, and his job at the end of the war was to interrogate German soldiers. He was looking for SS and Gestapo and other outlaws. And in 'Gravity's Rainbow' one of the things that is done is to interrogate a former German officer." There's much more, but this no doubt is enough. "Sweet, but crazy," was one reporter's verdict on Batchelor at the time. Keep in mind, though, that Salinger hadn't been heard from in a decade, that exactly nothing was known about Pynchon, and that stranger things have happened. Moreover, Batchelor, fresh from Scottish divinity school, had the virtue of sincerity. "At no point did I not think I was right," he says. "That's how inside the story I was. I proceeded with gravity. Soberly. I talked to all parties again and again. I told them what I was doing. I wanted them to tell me I was wrong. No one would." As a device for finding out facts about Pynchon, it also worked well. Batchelor's articles revealed more than any up to that time. He found the novelist's editor, his publisher, agent, the judges who voted to give him the National Book Award, the Faulkner Prize, the Pulitzer, the Howells Medal (given to the most distinguished work of fiction to be published in a five-year period). It was the first writing Batchelor had done. He didn't even have a phone. He called people like New York Times book reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, high-brow critics Elizabeth Hardwick and Benjamin DeMott, and New Yorker editor William Shawn (whose secretary blocked the call) from a pay phone in the street. "They didn't know," Batchelor says, then corrects himself: "Well, sometimes they did. I had to drop in another dime." When "Nightline" wanted a successful but poor writer a couple years ago to put on opposite Stephen King, Batchelor was chosen. Now 41, he looks ascetic, determined, a 24-hour-a-day writer, although in truth he recently got married to a pastor and they are expecting a child. His novels share the same baroque, fertile mind-set that could conceive of and believe in Salinger and Pynchon being one. First was a satirical jape on Halley's comet; his second can be explained by the title, "The Birth of the People's Republic of Antarctica." The third, "American Falls," is a Civil War tale that The Washington Post, in a front-page Book World review, called "unusual, brilliant and compelling." "It must have been the times," Batchelor explained in a letter. "In '73, Nixon was swinging hard. The year started like a farce gone black-and-blue. In January, Solzhenitsyn risked everything again, agreeing that the YMCA Press should publish 'Gulag.' Tass called him anti-Soviet and pro-Tsarist. Three weeks later, LBJ died and the court passed down Roe v. Wade and Kissinger announced the Vietnam peace accord. ... In spring, Pynchon issued GR in a $15 (!) hardback edition. Then John Dean took the stand. In the same week in October, the Saturday Night Massacre and our yellow alert for the Yom Kippur War. Then the Mets came from behind to take the division, pennant and almost the Series. Tug McGraw said it best, 'Ya gotta believe.' " Batchelor, and many others, believed in Pynchon after "Gravity's Rainbow." But faith wasn't rewarded. "I took a lot out of him. That old bugaboo about 'write what you know' -- he made it, 'write what you imagine,' " says Batchelor. "Tom Pynchon was a great hero to me, and then he wandered off. He could have helped us. We've had a tough time the past 17 years writing books. What is the satisfaction if you don't have a fraternity?" By not publishing any fiction for 17 years, Batchelor argues, Pynchon cut himself off from the generation of novelists who had grown up with him. Pynchon was 35 when "Gravity's Rainbow" appeared; he's 52 now. "That's an enormously prolific period for any novelist. In Pynchon there's a lot of immaturity, and he would have been able to work it out. But now, it's like Nixon's 18-minute gap. You know what should be there, but you don't feel it." Perhaps it was Pynchon's own belief in himself that faltered. The new novel, with its anti-yuppie bias and reference to Reagan-era RIFs, seems to have been composed in the last few years. What happened to the books he was supposedly writing in the mid-'70s, one a novel about the Mason-Dixon line and the other involving Japanese monster movies? Batchelor's theory -- and it makes as much sense as anyone's -- is that Pynchon, a man who has been writing at least since high school, simply got lost. He fell too deep into the dream. It's something Batchelor, after three years in the mid-'80s working on a novel about the Russian moon program that featured exclusively Russian characters, knows all about. "I see," he says of his still-unpublished book, "that what I did was go so far into the dream that there was nobody else with me. It's something you have to be careful of." The same thing happened with the Pynchon/Salinger fantasia. In the summer of 1977 Batchelor got a letter from Pynchon, written on Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer stationery and containing the only public encouragement the writer has ever given to those seeking him out: "Some of it is true, but none of the interesting parts. Keep trying. I had never heard of your paper, and one needs news." This is assuming, of course, that the letter wasn't someone's idea of a joke. Batchelor says he compared it with other Pynchon signatures (there are only a few) and it checks out. Either way, it caused him to stop believing Pynchon was Salinger. "I was back on Planet Earth. It was 1977, and I had been to a wonderful place, and I had been the only one there." Pynchon's new novel, published by Little, Brown, is outside the dream too, in a way that "Gravity's Rainbow" wasn't. Seven hundred and sixty pages long, "Rainbow" has several hundred characters and hardly any plot. One of the most appropriate critical comments came last fall from a sophomore at Princeton, Drayton Nabors. "It's the weirdest book I ever read," he told a reporter after a marathon reading. "I love it. Someday I'll even finish it." Readers of "Vineland" shouldn't have similar problems. Batchelor, for one, is looking forward to it. "I hope," he says, "that it means he's going to write again." After the troubles with the Russian moon book, Batchelor is also publishing. His upcoming novel, "Gordon Liddy Is My Muse," is his most accessible, one that touches on subjects of both perennial interest (unrepentant Watergate conspirator Liddy, Hollywood devouring writers, writers devouring other writers) and contemporary headlines (the German problem, the Soviet problem). When he thinks about Thomas Pynchon now, the image that remains is from the slide show that Mr. and Mrs. Farina gave him in their Queens home back in 1977. They were the parents of Richard Farina, the more-than-promising writer who was killed in 1966, two days after the publication of his first novel, "Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me." The colorful Farina and the more reserved Pynchon were best friends back at Cornell. The dedication of "Gravity's Rainbow" reads simply: "For Richard Farina." The slides were from Farina's wedding to Mimi Baez, sister of Joan, in 1963. "They were color slides, Kodachrome," Batchelor remembers. "She was loading them one at a time in this little tiny room. The only sound was the humming of the fan. Seeing Pynchon, she would say, 'Oh, there's Tom! There he is, and there's Dick.' " Pynchon was this very tall, ungainly-looking young man, who was at the wedding of his glamorous friend Dick Farina, who was marrying into the glamorous Baezes in a very hip California house overlooking the coast. In the early '60s, you couldn't get more fashionable than this. Every leftist cause in California centered in this home. But Pynchon was just this young man, hanging around at the wedding. He had a coat and tie on, tried to look proper, was humble and modest. He was not larger than life, not a legend, not even a legend-to-be. "It was the first time I had ever seen a picture of him," says Batchelor. "Before that, he was so far away I couldn't glimpse him. I could feel being there -- to be nobody in a party of very big somebodies. I could feel what it's like being outside the hip, and wanting to know if I mattered too. It made me like him. I saw how you could get to 'Gravity's Rainbow' from a place like that. You didn't have to come up with some enormous theory of genius at birth. It was hard work, but it didn't come from nowhere."