Country Rogue

Mendocino publisher Bruce Anderson is smart, sophisticated, and savage

The Anderson Valley Advertiser is a feast for readers and one of journalism's true curiosities. The front page bears a motto from Lenin: "Be as radical as reality." The AVA comes out every Wednesday and sells for 75 cents. It carries no photos and few advertisements, yet Anderson has little trouble filling up each issue's dozen pages with stories printed in tiny nine-point type. Anderson reports, writes, or edits fully a third of the copy and delivers the newspaper himself. His wife, Ling, is the office manager, and a stable of underpaid regular contributors works out of the home office in the tiny town of Boonville. These include Mark Scaramella, a retired Air Force captain who functions as both staff writer and typesetter, and star reporter Mark Heimann, a former logger and truck driver, who finances his journalism through part-time carpentry.

Anderson lurches from one controversy to the next. No sooner had he gotten out of jail on the contempt charge than he was defending himself against charges of literary fraud. Anderson has published a book with vers libre press in Portland, Ore., called The Letters of Wanda Tinasky. Anderson is promoting the book on the shaky premise that Wanda Tinasky, a self-described "bag lady" and one-time regular contributor to the letters column of his newspaper, was actually the great postmodern novelist Thomas Pynchon, perhaps the most reclusive author in America.

"No, Thomas Pynchon did not write the Wanda Tinasky letters, as the publisher well knows," said Melanie Jackson, Pynchon's literary agent and wife. She sent a fax forbidding Anderson to publish the letters as Pynchon's.

Anderson says readers can decide for themselves. He himself is convinced that Pynchon, the author of such classic metafiction as V. and The Crying of Lot 49, developed a great affinity for his newspaper during the years when the author was anonymously holed up on the Northern California coast researching and writing his satirical novel Vineland. Anderson believes Pynchon typed out the Wanda Tinasky letters from 1983 to 1988, as a kind of warm-up exercise to that work.

And if Pynchon decides to sue Anderson -- so much the better. It would be his chance to smoke out the author, who has not been photographed since 1955, when Pynchon was a student at Cornell, and who has gone to such elaborate lengths to preserve his anonymity that he sent the redoubtable comedian "Professor" Irwin Corey to pick up his National Book Award for Gravity's Rainbow.

It is these antics -- and Anderson's theatricality and self-promotion -- that have led the mainstream news media to dismiss him as journalism's problem child. Here's how it works: A newspaper reporter visits Boonville, talks to the locals in the Buckhorn Tavern and Horn of Zeese coffee shop (a "redneck think tank," Anderson calls it), spends an hour or two chatting with the affable and engaging editor, and then writes the usual Sunday feature about a wacky country editor who is always getting into trouble.

But failing to take Bruce Anderson seriously is a mistake. Anderson often publishes some of the most interesting, carefully researched, and well-written journalism in Northern California -- and some of the funniest and most offbeat.

Alexander Cockburn, who lives in Humboldt County north of Mendocino, says the AVA excels in its coverage of local education and county government and is "aggressively good" on the courts, with none of what Cockburn calls "that patty-cake bullshit" found in the mainstream media. Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair write a regular column for the AVA called "Nature & Politics" that is widely regarded as some of the finest environmental reporting in the country. Mark Heimann has been aggressively reporting on the DA and Sheriff's offices, and on the poverty and violence plaguing Round Valley, the largest Indian reservation in California.

None of Anderson's writers make much money doing this. Cockburn is paid the princely sum of $25 a column. Heimann has had to make a public appeal for money to fund his investigation of the Bear Lincoln case.

"What Bruce does takes a lot of bottle," says Cockburn, using the Scottish word for moxie. "It's easy to write about distant people. But Bruce lives here. That's a little different, when you're in a bar standing next to a guy that you just called a flaming asshole in print. A lot of people get pissed off at Bruce. But this is an area that takes a perverse pride that there's a guy like Bruce who's going to piss them off."

Anderson seems to welcome the parade of reporters who regularly visit him at his "nouveau hippie" compound in Boonville. Set on a half-acre of land, Anderson's home and office is a sprawling collection of sheds and bungalows. Here he lives with his wife, Ling; his brother, Rob Anderson; their disabled sister and elderly mother; another disabled adult who Bruce and Ling raised as a foster child; and a friend who fled an abusive marriage. Bruce's study is lined with books (he seems to own every volume in "The Modern Library" series), and his house is comfortably appointed in antique furniture left him by Ellie Weitkamp, an avid AVA reader from Arlington, Va., who boarded with the Andersons while she was dying of cancer. At her death in 1993, Weitkamp left the newspaper a quarter-million dollars to salvage an enterprise that had been barely getting by in the decade since Anderson had bought it.

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